Designing environmental regulation of agricultural imports: Options and considerations for the UK

The UK is developing an ambitious agri-food strategy based on a liberalised approach to trade policy tempered with safeguarding important standards. This Think Piece commissioned by WWF UK examines the potential for designing Core Environmental Standards (CES) to agri-food products, including those imported to the UK, and aims to offer new impetus and some practical ideas to bring environmental standards into UK trade policy.

The decision by the United Kingdom in 2016 to leave the European Union has provided the need for and opportunity to rethink and reposition its environmental, agricultural, trade and food policies. The UK is committed to being a world leader in the fight against climate change and was one of the first major economies to commit to net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emission targets (net zero) by 2050. The transition towards a sustainable agri-food system plays an important role in that process: UK food production and consumption account for about 20% of the country’s CO2 emissions, half of which can be attributed to imports.

Since exiting the EU, the UK is in the process of negotiating regional trade agreements (RTAs) with some of its key trading partners, several of which are significant agricultural exporters such as Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Whilst promises have been made “not to compromise on the UK’s high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards in its trade negotiations, concerns have been raised over the implications of trade liberalisation of agri-food products that are subject to less-stringent product and production standards compared to the UK.

While the government has responded positively to pursuing international policy action with the goal of advancing trade-related environmental standards in a general way, it has not specifically addressed its national-level policy action, or the domestic policy dimension of its trade-policy strategy.

One of the aims of this research is to offer new impetus and some practical ideas to bring environmental standards into trade policy for the agri-food trade. The project will examine the potential for designing Core Environmental Standards (CES) not only to agri-food products produced in the UK, but also to imported UK agri-food products. It will seek to address questions such as, can CES be expressed as a trade policy tool? What are the implications of policy design options on issues of concern, such as the UK’s compliance with international trade policy commitments? And could potential adverse effects of CES on developing countries arise?

The Think Piece, prepared by IEEP and Tulip Consulting, and commissioned by WWF, looks at developing case studies to make the debate on CES as a trade policy tool more tangible, with a focus on four regulatory areas: biodiversity protection through pesticide approval regulation; biodiversity protection through the regulation of crop nutrient management, especially nitrates; climate protection through targeted contributions to Net Zero; and regulatory measures to protect climate and biodiversity by exploring the possibilities and effects of establishing a ‘not associated with deforestation’ standard for some agricultural products, such as beef.

It is hoped that this research can help clarify the potential of CES to support alignment between the UK’s trade and environmental policy ambitions and facilitate the transition to sustainable agri-food systems in the UK and beyond.

The arguments expressed in this report are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the opinion of any other party.

Photo by no one cares on Unsplash

Downloads