The controversial tariff free Australia trade deal is the first of many trade deals that will be signed by the UK government over the next few years as it re-establishes trading links with many countries in a post Brexit world. The UK is not self-sufficient in food production; it imports 48% of the total food consumed and the proportion is rising, so food trade remains vital to feed a growing population with healthy and nutritious foods. There is a real opportunity, given COP 26 and the UN Food Systems Summit, which are both being held later in 2021, for Boris Johnson and the UK government to demonstrate leadership ensuring that how we trade supports and promotes human, planetary and animal health and well being. The proposed Australia trade deal, to be signed at the G7 summit in June 2021, is an ominous sign that restriction-free trade agreements will take precedence over trade deals that support healthy, nutritious foods, using regenerative farming practices which support the highest animal welfare standards.
The need to reform international trade
International trade and trade policies are of central importance but their role in supporting sustainable and healthy food systems is often poorly understood. With 80 percent of the world’s population depending on imports to meet at least part of their food and nutritional requirements, trade policies which promote good health and sustainable outcomes are crucial. Trade policies today are invariably driven by goals that have little to do with our diets, nutrition, environmental standards or animal welfare, instead focusing on issues such as economic growth, incomes, jobs, and export earnings. If the health, social and environmental costs associated with food production and trade are not reflected in the final price of goods, trade is likely to exacerbate the health and planetary crises.
A 2020 GLOPAN report recommended, amongst other things, that policymakers should consider the impacts of trade tariffs on the promotion and importing of ultra-processed foods and reduce the price of nutrient-rich foods, as this can particularly benefit the poorest. The dumping of foods from Northern markets (e.g. powdered milk or other commodity crops (rice, wheat, maize etc)) often undermines prices in local markets, reinforcing the dominance of global markets in driving health and nutritional standards.
Examples of governments using trade for good
The Government of Ghana has for example, implemented an innovative food standards policy to limit the amount of fat in meat and meat cuts, in response to rising imports of low-quality fatty meat cuts. Singapore, which currently imports over 90% of its food, has recently published plans to reduce its dependence on food imports with its “30 by 30” vision, whereby 30% of Singapore’s nutritional needs will be produced locally by 2030.
As COVID-19 has exposed the fragility and vulnerability of food systems to external shocks, there are opportunities for many countries to grow much more fresh and nutrient dense foods locally, ensuring freshness, optimal nutrient quality, and reductions in fresh produce waste. Feeding our urban centres, particularly cities, for example, offers opportunities to explore how we can shorten food supply chains between the rural and urban fringe. Governments should at least be adhering to the Codex Alimentarius Commission standards, guidelines and recommendations when assessing the implications of trade on food standards and health.
Three Policy priorities
I am not a trade expert, but it should be blindingly obvious that trade matters – tariff free trade which undermines environmental and animal welfare standards and that encourages the consumption of unhealthy energy dense foods that are high in saturated fats, sugars and salts will come at significant costs – contributing to malnutrition in all its forms, undermining farmers that farm using the highest animal welfare standards and contributing toward the climate and biodiversity crisis.
We need to push the UK government to demonstrate leadership on the international stage. If I was Secretary of State for International Trade, I would be pushing Boris Johnson to
- Assess the human, ecological and animal health implications of international trade agreements and policies: Policy instruments that reduce the price of natural, nutrient-rich foods, improve animal welfare standards, and regenerate ecosystems must be a priority. Providing the trade policy incentives that enable shorter supply chains prioritising the procurement of foods with high sustainability and animal welfare standards, will boost local economies, build resilience, and reconnect food producers to consumers.
- Give careful consideration to imports from countries which apply less stringent social and environmental protection policies, in order to specifically evaluate the long-term effects on domestic industry.
- Ensure trade contributes towards the shift towards healthier diets at national, regional and global levels making a substantial contribution to reducing national greenhouse gas emissions. There is an urgent need for policy measures that encompass international supply chains to promote agro-ecological and regenerative production of nutritious foods for high-quality diets. Governments should include the effects of food trade within their Nationally Determined Contributions (National Plans to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions)