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What United States and United Kingdom Trade Talks might mean for Farmers and the Climate.

Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming ( is a network of NGOs concerned with matters of environment, health, food and farming in the UK.

Christopher Jones is Co-coordinator of the Agricultural Christian Fellowship. He has previously been Chair of the UK Food Group and later of the Network of European banana NGOs. He is also co-author of "Honey and Thistles", a Christian perspective on the World Food system.

Sustain’s staff have combed through the 460 pages of the minutes of the discussions that have been going on for two years or more. These have recently emerged into the public domain. We are grateful to Kath Dalmeny and her colleague Orla for their work on these minutes of the US/UK trade discussions. They have honed out of it ten key points:

Christopher writes: I have read just 116 and that is quite enough to make me think that the only way of "ending the uncertainty" is to end Brexit. Trade negotiations seem to involve everything from banking to food labels. First, a word of caution: in this document I refer to several quotes ‘US’, which is shorthand for the US negotiators, but we should remember that many in the US share our fears. No doubt US business has its eye on the UK health system, but if UK politicians are really resistant on this, then it is in the nature of negotiation that UK negotiators will have to give way in other areas. And so we come to the food system.

The minutes show that the US regards its food standards as 'the gold standard", whilst describing how they are largely voluntary. Many, on the other hand point to failings such as the incidence of Salmonella fatalities. The US does not like the system of food labelling, which is one of the UK government's principal tools in pursuit of better health. They would also like to scrap designations of type or origin such as Melton Mowbray pork pies. The EU's precautionary principle in matters of technological innovation and food safety is also under attack, with the British side appearing ready to concede on this. Perhaps much the same applies to GM crops and pesticide usage. Does the US side have any interest in animal welfare? An area where the EU does much better thanks in large measure to British persuasion. There seems to have been little discussion of the use of antibiotics in farming; something of great importance to human health. In Britain this is reducing and is at 20% of US levels. All the US aims are about ways of making food production cheaper. The easiest way to do this is to make the environment, or the animals, or the workers, bear the cost. Thus, if you open your market to products derived in this way, you have either to lower your own standards or sacrifice your own production. How much of UK farming would continue more than a few years is unclear.

Through all of this runs the question of corporate power, much of it in the case of the food system, based in, and lobbying in the US. Corporations want access to the UK on their own terms. The food system is like one of those old-fashioned egg- timers. Many producers, a few processors and traders, and many consumers, with the few in control and reaping the rewards. A UK/US trade deal looks like an opportunity for them to widen the arena for the exercise of this power. Power often masquerading as "efficiency". Power which has destroyed much of US farming as we might understand it.

Finally and most alarming of all we come to the climate. The UK raised this back in 2017, stressing its strong commitment to the Paris agreement. The US delegate "responded emphatically that climate change is the most politically sensitive question for the US. It is bound by congress not to mention greenhouse gas emissions in trade negotiations." And that seems to have been the end of the matter. In my opinion that should have been the end of the talks. No wonder they have gone on in secret!

Christopher Jones: December 2019

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