The Times | 17 February 2017
Brussels ‘will block’ GM food from Britain
by Henry Zeffman
Last month the government approved field trials of GM wheat and is expected to give the go-ahead to trials of a potato genetically modified to be resistant to blight.
Plans to grow genetically modified crops in Britain could result in the EU blocking imports of the produce after Brexit, according to a leaked report by European parliament officials.
The internal paper, written to guide the parliament’s agriculture committee in its “scrutiny of Brexit”, says that British farmers seeking to sell produce to the remaining 27 member states could be hampered by multiple barriers on top of tariffs averaging 14 per cent.
The officials’ note reports that Britain is developing new rules to make GM crop cultivation easier after pulling out of the EU. Political opposition to GM foods in several EU states has resulted in only one GM crop being approved by the bloc in the past 20 years.
The officials also raise concerns that Brexit could result in Britain permitting imports of chicken that has been rinsed in chlorine to eliminate bacteria. The practice is banned by the EU but is widely used by American farmers.
The report says: “If the UK was tempted, after its withdrawal from the EU, to take a different approach to GMOs [genetically modified organisms] or chlorinated chickens, as we have read might be the case, this would considerably complicate its trade with the EU 27.”
The report adds: “Problems resulting from tariff and customs barriers to trade between the EU 27 and UK may soon be compounded by the emergence of significant non-tariff barriers to trade following the non-participation of the UK in the disciplines of the internal market.”
Last month the government approved field trials of GM wheat engineered to use sunlight more efficiently and produce bigger grains. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is expected to approve trials of a potato genetically modified to be resistant to blight.
Baroness Parminter, the Liberal Democrat environment spokeswoman, said: “Small farming businesses will already be particularly badly hit by Theresa May’s reckless plans to leave the single market, which could see steep tariffs imposed on exports like beef, lamb and cheese.
“Lowering UK farming standards or relaxing rules on GMOs could make matters even worse, by throwing up even more barriers for the many farmers who rely on trade with Europe.”
US business leaders accused the EU yesterday of double standards over its ban on chlorinated chicken, saying that European farmers used chlorine to wash lettuce. Marjorie Chorlins, the vice-president for European affairs at the US chamber of commerce, said that concerns about food safety were “easily hijacked” by people who opposed free trade.
“It isn’t the case per se that food standards in the US are lower than they are in the UK or the EU,” she said. “It is that the means by which we go about achieving those standards may be different. We are not looking for chicken that is any less safe in the US than you are here. With the chlorinated chicken example, of course, we laugh about that because how do you treat lettuce in Europe? With chlorinated water.
“There’s a little bit of dissonance there.”
Fears of chlorinated chicken coming to Britain first surfaced in negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the proposed free trade deal between the EU and the US. That deal is technically still in the pipeline, although Ms Chorlins said that the election of President Trump, who has declared his aversion to multilateral deals, means that the deal is “dead for all intents and purposes”.
The goal of harmonising food standards, meaning that farmers in one country only need to satisfy one set of regulations to sell them in other countries, was not to reduce safety but to minimise the cost for the customer, Ms Chorlins said.
“It’s a red herring to suggest somehow that we’re looking to relax standards. What we’re looking to do is eliminate costs associated with duplicative testing and standards requirements.
“The idea is to minimise costs. Not just for companies but also for regulators, and because those costs ultimately get passed on to the consumer.”
New trade deals may take years
The UK sold €16 billion of agricultural goods to the rest of the EU in 2014 but received €40 billion of imports.
The other 27 EU members will be reluctant to jeopardise a trade surplus of €24 billion in their favour.
However, a report for the European parliament’s agriculture committee notes that the EU imposes an average tariff of 14 per cent on agricultural produce imported from a country to which it has not granted preferential trading status.
It adds that British farmers benefit not just from free trade with the EU but with the EU’s preferential partners and that Britain will face major disruption of its trade with the rest of the world straight after Brexit unless it manages to secure separate deals with those countries.
The Brussels officials who wrote the report doubt that their Whitehall counterparts have the skills to secure such deals within two years. They suggest that Britain “has lost the experience and knowhow of such negotiations since the mid-1970s”.