Monday, April 23, 2018

Risks for food and drink sector from Brexit

A report from a House of Commons Select Committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy highlights some of the risks that the processed food and drink sector faces after Brexit.

'The processed food and drink sector is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK and contributes £28.8 billion to the economy. Exports were worth £22 billion in 2017 and they continue to grow. The sector directly employs 400,000 people throughout the country, a third of whom are EU nationals. It is characterised by just-in-time delivery of products with short shelf lives and is heavily integrated with supply chains spread across the UK and the EU for sourcing raw materials, processing goods and selling them. Many manufacturers have factories in both the UK and the rest of the EU.

The success of the UK processed food and drink sector has been so far highly dependent on participation in the Single Market and Customs Union: free movement of goods and people have tipped the UK export balance towards an over reliance on the EU as a trading partner with 60 per cent of UK exports going to EU markets. 50 per cent of total UK food and drink exports go to five countries, four of which are EU member states.

It is crucial that the sector is able to remain competitive when we leave the European Union as failure to do so would not only impact businesses and workers but also consumers at the till point and the choice available to them in shopping aisles all year round.

The sector would undeniably suffer from reverting to WTO tariffs in the event of a ‘no deal’ scenario. The EU’s Most Favoured Nation tariffs under WTO rules would be disastrous for UK exports and must be avoided at all cost. It is unrealistic to expect that the sector will stop relying on the EU as its main export destination at least in the short term. Consequently, the negotiation of a free trade agreement with the EU should be the number one priority for the Government. Should the UK lower or remove its tariffs on imports in the future, the consequences for British farming could be extremely damaging and the positive impact on prices for goods to households is likely to be very limited.

UK competitiveness would also be adversely affected by any additional delays and bureaucracy encountered at the UK-EU border, given the prevalence of cross-border just-in-time supply chains in the sector. The Government should seek to secure as few additional impediments to trade between the UK and the EU as can be negotiated. Frictions at the border between Ireland and the UK are of particular concern as the sector is highly integrated across the two countries. A credible solution to avoiding a hard border must be found as soon as possible.

The EU regulatory regime in food and drink is also highly integrated, and the UK is a full member of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). EU food regulation is associated with high safety and quality standards and already allows divergence. The majority of the evidence was in favour of remaining aligned with EU regulation as it is favourable to exports amongst other things but some opportunities from divergence were identified in a few sectors. Nevertheless, all were unanimous in rejecting any ‘race to the bottom’ as UK consumers would not tolerate any lowering of standards. Most stakeholders also supported the UK continuing its membership of EFSA after Brexit.'

The full report can be found here: Report

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The future for agriculture

At last week's Agricultural Economics Society meeting, Jonathan Brooks of the OECD convened a panel on the links between agricultural market prospects and policy challenges at the global, European and UK levels.

At the global level, food prices increased sharply in 2007-8, sparking fears about food security as well as about the earth's capacity to produce enough food for a growing and increasingly wealthy population.

World population growth is slowing. The growth in consumption has halved over the last ten years and is not coming from per capita income growth with the exception of Africa. This pattern is different for dairy, sugar and vegetable oils. India is driving dairy demand. Cereal demand is driven by animal feed.

Since 2007-8, world agricultural markets have stabilised, with prices of most commodities well below the peaks of a decade ago. The return to lower prices has led to resurgent demands for agricultural protection, with several large emerging economies now adopting policies previously pursued by high income countries. PSE levels have increased in those countries.

Markets also remain vulnerable to periodic shocks, and many countries have sought to find ways of managing the risks such shocks pose to both producers and consumers, often via policies that may have a significant impact on world markets (such as public stockholding).

Over the next ten years, the demand for most agricultural commodities is projected to slow. This will provide relief to the supply side challenge of feeding a rising world population and provide greater room for policy makers to focus on the parallel requirements of using the world's resources sustainably and making an effective contribution to climate change mitigation.

One interesting point was that a small number of countries dominate the production of particular commodities which does lend some reinforcement to food security arguments. Russia and Ukraine are increasingly important in world grain trade, but could withdraw exports to protect domestic markets in conditions of tight supply.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What can we learn from New Zealand?

One of the most interesting panels I attended at the Society of Agricultural Economists conference at the University of Warwick was on what, if anything, we could learn from the reforms in New Zealand, often held up as an example of the benefits to be obtained from a radical eradication of subsidies. Interestingly, the position first taken in the discussion was that the experiences were so different in terms of geography, the prevalence of cooperatives, the timing and form of subsidies etc. that little could be learnt. However, as the discussion progressed, some lessons were extracted.

It is important to understand the context in which reforms took place. New Zealand was suffering from fixed exchange rates, the Think Big energy projects and high inflation, leading to a fiscal crisis. The subsidies were in place for a relatively short time and were also offered to manufacturing to offset the effects of a high exchange rate. Capitalisation into asset prices did not have the same impact as elsewhere.

For a long time New Zealand agriculture enjoyed preferential access to UK markets at guaranteed prices, but in the 1960s commodity prices fell. There were some really sad cases among farmers, but not that many went bankrupt. Because most farms were family farms, some use was made of unpaid labour.

New Zealand had first mover advantage with exports to China, but failed to follow through on that and let others capture market share. Hence, the first mover advantage was squandered.

New Zealand had 67.8m sheep in 1985 and 29.1m in 2015. The dairy herd has expanded, particularly on the Canterbury Plains, but this has led to concern about environmental impacts in terms of climate change and water pollution.

It was pointed out that the structure of cooperatives allowed the rapid transmission of intelligence from external markets to producers.

Some specific mitigation measures were provided. For example, although subsidies on interest payments were withdrawn, the actual payments were kept at the same level. There was also help with farm business plans.

The UK should aim for value added growth, but what sorts of policies did this imply? One approach might be to enhance the knowledge base.

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Thursday, April 12, 2018

Food, Brexit and Northern Ireland

Tim Lang and his colleagues have produced an important briefing paper on the issues that arise from Brexit for food in Northern Ireland: The critical issues

They argue, 'Food is central to the economy of Northern Ireland, and the continuing supply of safe, high quality, healthy food is currently dependent on the absence of border controls between Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Great Britain and the rest of the European Union. Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of food criss-cross these borders every year. They are currently free from inspection because of shared, underpinning EU Single Market regulation. An unplanned or mishandled food border imposition is likely to have powerful, destabilising consequences for the integrated nature of food supply, trade and access within Northern Ireland for many years to come. It would raise important challenges for food safety, put jobs at risk, potentially constrain Northern Ireland’s access to health-supporting foods such as fruit and vegetables, and create opportunities for food fraud and crime.'

They rightly rule out technological fixes for which specific details have never been provided.

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Monday, April 09, 2018

Devolution choices after Brexit

The Institute for Government has issued a report on relations with the devolved administrations after Brexit which focuses on agriculture as one of the areas in which key decisions will need to be made. Some of the main points are reproduced below. The report as a whole can be accessed at: Devolution after Brexit

In particular, how can funding be distributed? Option one would be to use the Barnett formula, which would give greater flexibility to the devolved administrations, but leave devolved budgets more vulnerable to UK government cuts.

Distributing this funding through the Barnett formula would mean that the future level of agricultural funding available for the devolved administrations would be tied to policy decisions made by the UK government. While the devolved administrations would gain greater day-to-day control over how their budget is spent, they would run the risk of their budgets being squeezed in the event the UK government chose to cut the English agriculture budget.

Option two: The UK could decide to create a ring-fenced agricultural support budget, which would be the least change to the current arrangement An alternative approach would be for the UK to establish a new agricultural support budget, protected and separated from the wider devolution budget settlement and ‘block grant’.

The initial distribution would likely reflect the current split through CAP and these levels would be maintained until 2022; reflecting Michael Gove’s commitment to match-fund agricultural support payments. After that, there would need to be an agreement on how the budget was agreed for future years.

The Barnett formula would be one option, but the creation of a new, separate budget is an opportunity to take a different approach. A new budget could allow the governments to create a new funding mechanism, taking into account some of the criticisms of Barnett. The budget could be negotiated periodically, formally and at a four-nation level, as part of the UK government’s spending review.

A ring-fenced agricultural budget for each nation would offer a greater guarantee to farmers in the devolved nations, with funding levels set for a specific period of time. It would protect them against money being reallocated to other policy priorities. A ring fenced budget would also make the UK rather than the devolved governments responsible for resolving the difficult trade-offs between agriculture and other policy areas. Ultimately, from the devolved administrations’ perspective, agreeing to this type of budget could be a missed opportunity for greater autonomy in spending decisions, preventing them from making their own decisions around policy priorities and funding.

An important first step will be reaching consensus on what the UK ‘internal market’ is, and where divergence becomes market distortion. Just as the EU’s single market contains provisions to ensure a ‘level playing field’, the UK Government and the devolved administrations will need to consider what a UK level playing field should look like.

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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Back to 1947?

Today I attended a Defra consultation meeting on the agriculture and food green paper in Harrogate. There was a good attendance of over eighty people,including a large contingent of farmers.

Defra personnel insisted that 'nothing was set in stone', but they also said that the secretary of state had set a very clear direction of travel.

The clear view of farmers in the direct payments breakout session was that they wanted an across the board reduction in support, i.e., no capping.

There did seem to be a hankering for the world of the 1947 Agriculture Act. In particular, deficiency payments were mentioned. However, the Treasury would never endorse them as the spend is so variable.

I am not convinced that all the money saved by capping will be transferred to new farm schemes. Many of these schemes may not be accessible to all farmers, so the idea that any money lost in direct payments will be compensated elsewhere is optimistic.

It was argued that the figures that showed a high level of dependency in support payments were too optimistic, i.e., the level of reliance was even greater.

It was evident in a discussion on knowledge transfer that many farmers were benefiting from small self-help groups where they could see new methods tried out in practice. However, it was probably the more efficient farmers that were making use of these arrangements.

Above all, a great deal of uncertainty prevailed given that we do not know the shape of any trade deal with the EU and third countries.

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Sunday, March 25, 2018

Fruit and vegetable production should get post Brexit boost

The Landworkers' Alliance has issued a report arguing that fruit and vegetable production should be boosted after Brexit: New deal for horticulture

It argues that directing more of the budget towards fruit and vegetables will deliver much of what Mr Gove wants in terms of health and sustainability.

However, it is already difficult to secure labour to pick such crops. Google searches by Romanian, Bulgarian and Polish citizens looking for agricultural jobs in the UK dropped by 34 per cent in the past year, according to a study by GK Strategy and OneFourZero.

The fall in interest from overseas has not been matched by an increase in searches from UK workers for UK farm jobs. Bulgaria saw the largest drop, with 2,000 fewer searches for UK jobs in January 2017 compared with the same time the year before.

The two companies said Google search data was a good early indicator of changing behaviour patterns because people increasingly looked online for job vacancies.

The UK agricultural sector already has a 29 per cent shortfall in seasonal workers. The Government has so far failed to introduce any kind of special scheme.

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RPSCA calls for two tier animal welfare support after Brexit

The RSPCA has published a report Into the Fold discussing how animal welfare could be supported as a public good justifying taxpayer support. It suggests a two tier system that limits support to those who go 'above and beyond' the minimum in animal welfare: RSPCA proposals

The RSPCA argues that producers should not be rewarded for 'business as usual' or for being legally compliant. Tier one would be a transitional payment awarded to producers for things such as improving buildings, better stocksmanship or to compensate for higher running costs.

Tier two payments would be awarded to members of a higher welfare assurance scheme, such as RSPCA Assured, covering the whole life of the animal.

The report gives some examples of payments that could be made to farmers and how much they would cost. For example, allowing all pigs access to straw might cost £70 a weaner and would amount to £20m if 25 per cent of the national herd not currently weaned on straw were to take up the support.

Implementing a veterinary plan to cut lameness in sheep might cost £10 a ewe, giving a total bill of £89m annually based on a 25 per cent uptake of flocks not currently covered by RSPCA standards.

These are quite substantial sums given the amount that would be released by 'capping' payments to larger farms and the fact that there will be other claims on that money.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Defra to get big staff boost

Defra gets the second largest additional sum of any department (after the Home Office) to prepare for Brexit, an additional £310m. About 80 per cent of its work is affected by Brexit, given that its main task in the past was to seek to influence EU policy and implement directives It needs to develop new systems for agricultural policy, fisheries management and environmental protection. In particular it needs to develop the Government's rather vague green paper on food and farming into a set of viable policy instruments.

Staff will be boosted by 65 per cent. Of course, in the interim, many experienced staff have been lost. Under New Labour I had a period of secondment with the animal welfare team, and I was impressed by the way they integrated veterinary expertise with more generalist skills. But, like the rest of Defra, they were subsequently hollowed out.

Stakeholders such as the NFU will be giving evidence to the House of Commons Defra committee about the department this morning. It will be interesting to hear what they have to say. The initial discussion seems to be about farm policy rather than Defra's capabilities, but I will watch some more later.

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