Shanker Singham is CEO of Competere. He is a former trade advisor to Liam Fox, the UK Trade Secretary.
Animal welfare concerns seem to be dividing the free-trade wing of the Conservative party and the agricultural wing. But some of the solutions being proposed would row back on decades of WTO rules and practice, and make the UK a pariah state in the WTO community.
It is axiomatic in WTO law, and in the way that nations have dealt with each other in trade, that countries should not discriminate between products based on how they are produced. Laws should be technology and process neutral. This is true in all areas, including the complex rules that underpin the animal, human and plant health standards (SPS rules) that countries can impose on trade.
Article IV of the SPS Agreement (the agreement that deals with these rules) and its implementing decision are especially clear on how to deal with different approaches in the SPS area. As long as the ultimate objectives are the same, and they are objectively achieved by the regulatory system, differences in approach should not defeat equivalence, and there are quite detailed mechanisms for ensuring equivalence decisions can be reached, precisely because the risk of protectionism in this area is so high.
There is an assumption in the UK, largely because it has so far been shielded from the global opprobrium generated by the EU’s choices in the SPS area, that EU standards are the best in the world. They are not. The EU is an outlier in the SPS area and has managed to unite countries as diverse as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US, India and Latin America against its barriers.
Its direction of travel, far from changing course, is accelerating with new bans or cumbersome restrictions on new technologies such as gene editing, fungicides and insecticides every day. Soon it will be impossible to make an economic case to grow wheat or similar plants in the UK’s temperate climate with its wet summers (different from most EU member states, except Ireland).
For the UK to now require a foreign exporter to meet its animal welfare standards before it accepted any of its products would be a flagrant and obvious breach of WTO rules, and would ride roughshod over all the work of the SPS committee over almost thirty years.
To get round this, and to block even the most modest agricultural liberalisation, the latest argument appears to be that there are some products whose production methods mean that they are actually different products (and therefore by implication different tariffs can be applied).
An argument was recently made by Anthony Browne, MP, in ConservativeHome that there is a precedent for including animal welfare concerns into the UK’s tariff liberalisation plans, by arguing that so-called Hilton beef (non-hormone treated) has a quota into the EU while hormone-treated beef does not. He argues this is precedent for treating the same product differently for the purpose of tariffs or quotas if it has been produced in different ways.
Browne then seeks to build on this to introduce animal welfare as a way of differentiating between products. This approach is fundamentally misconceived. The Hilton-beef quota only exists because of the EU’s illegal ban on beef hormone-treated products – a case the EU lost in the WTO. The EU had to change its ban or face sanctions. As part of a resolution of that matter, and to avoid US trade sanctions (sanctions that would have hit such UK exports as scotch whiskey and other iconic products), the EU agreed to open up its market to non-hormone treated beef which also exists in the US. If the EU removed its WTO-illegal ban, the Hilton beef category would be unnecessary.
There is much misinformation about whether hormone treatment is dangerous to animals or humans. The reason that the WTO found the EU beef hormone-ban to violate SPS rules was that it was not based on sound science, and that levels of hormones as a result of the treatment were inconsequential. A three gram serving of hormone-inject beef produced 0.85 units of oestradiol, whereas the same serving of eggs produced 94 units.
Indeed, in 2005, a subgroup of the UK’s own Veterinary Products Committee examined the EC’s 2002 Opinion (the basis for the ban) and concluded that they were “unable to support the conclusion reached by the Sub-Committee on Veterinary Public Health (SCVPH) that risks associated with the consumption of meat from hormone-treated cattle may be greater than previously thought.” So much for sound science.
The notion that animal welfare should be part of trade agreements has already been considered and dismissed by the WTO since it would open the door to the very kind of protectionism that Browne suggests. Farmers would seek protection, claiming that animal welfare standards were being violated in the exporting country.
It would certainly be appropriate for the UK to push its animal welfare agenda in the OIE which is the appropriate venue for animal husbandry standards setting. Such a dialogue needs to be informed by science and not mumbo jumbo, as the PM said in his Greenwich speech. Before mounting such a campaign, the UK would need to make sure it is the animal welfare leader it thinks it is. A quick look at conditions in abattoirs and slaughterhouses in the UK would give one pause for thought.
It is also wrong to assert without question that US animal welfare standards are lower than the UK’s. Where is the evidence for this? Of course there are always rogue actors (these are also present in the UK), but US stocking densities for poultry range from 31Kg/square metre to 43 Kg/Sq metre depending on the weight of the bird, where the UK’s maximum is 39Kg/square metres. In many cases, UK farms have higher stocking densities than US farms.
When the UK is truly independent with control over its laws, operating like any other WTO member, the urgent question will be what it chooses to do with that freedom. There seem to be those that think that what it chooses for its own domestic regulatory framework does not matter. That it can have its cake and eat it, to borrow from a well-worn phrase.
But for the true prize of Brexit to be gained, to grow its economy and give people in Britain genuine hope that they can lift themselves and their families by dint of sheer hard work which will be rewarded and not punished, it must choose a domestic regulatory framework that promotes innovation and competition. By so doing, it opens up trade possibilities with the community of like-minded nations.
Locking in to EU-style regulation in areas where that regulation has been shown to be anti-competitive and anti-innovative (which is more true of agriculture than any area) would be a disastrous first step, and would damage the UK economy, its trade policy, its consumers and ultimately its farmers.