Environmental standards for UK agriculture in a new trade policy framework

The briefing addresses the need for a new approach to environmental standards in trade policy relating to agri-foods, primarily in relation to the UK which is now developing its own policy outside the EU.

Environmental standards can be expected to play a more prominent role in the coming decades as the food system adjusts to progressively more stretching sustainability requirements, as part of an economy-wide effort to deliver on climate, biodiversity, and other environmental commitments.

Despite this, there has been relatively little detailed discussion about how environmental standards can be addressed in a new UK trade policy.

There is no current list of environmental standards that might be of particular concern for trade in agri-foods. Those of greatest relevance include not only product standards but rules that lay down how agricultural production takes place and how land and other resources are used on farms. It is clear that the starting point for a sustainable policy is to ensure that all existing domestic standards are maintained. Building on this, it is helpful to make a distinction between product and production standards on the one hand, and domestic and import standards on the other.

This four-way categorisation can be captured in the matrix below.

 

Product standards

Production standards

Domestic standards

Apply to products for sale and produced in the UK (e.g. maximum pesticide residue levels in food)

Apply to domestic means of production (e.g. maximum levels of fertiliser use)

Import standards

Apply to imported products for sale in the UK (e.g. permissible inorganic fertilisers and pesticides)

Apply to means of production of imported goods (e.g. organically produced food)

 

To take policy forward it would be helpful to identify the environmental standards that are potentially most affected by developing trade relationships, preferably on the basis of agreed criteria and robust evidence. These standards would then be the priority for application in some form to imports. Three possible criteria for distinguishing an explicit set of “core” environmental standards are discussed and illustrated with a number of examples of particular relevance to agriculture that are now in place in the UK.

A number of different mechanisms could be used, initially within FTAs, to secure the future of such “core” standards. All would be more effective with supporting action to improve the evidence base and governance of trade policy. The options include a voluntary approach based on the use of labels, reinforcing the status of current standards in domestic law, the use of differential import tariffs and the introduction of new environmental standards applying to imported agri-foods. Close scrutiny and evaluation of these options and the way they could be implemented is now needed.

A preliminary review suggests that some have distinct advantages, including the option of introducing a new set of environmental standards on imports. Their main purpose would be to uphold core domestic standards but there is also a case for restrictions on imports associated with particularly damaging environmental practice affecting the global commons, such as unsustainable deforestation.

Opinions over whether new import standards could be challenged successfully under WTO rules vary but there are interesting precedents and the EU has been proactive in defending several of its own standards through the control of imports. With gathering global momentum to tackle climate change and the loss of biodiversity the time for supporting rising environmental standards in a more effective way via transparent and strongly grounded trade policy surely has arrived.

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