We share a language. We share a history. We share business practices and accounting systems. There is a common bond between our countries and a genuine special relationship.
So today it simply makes sense for the United States and the United Kingdom to look towards a new bilateral trade agreement; to quietly work on White House signals for future free flowing trade and mutual benefit, away from the media headlines that seem dominated by President Trump’s calls for protectionism and tariffs.
In February, I traveled from the UK to a conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Both Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Under Secretary for Trade Ted McKinney spoke favorably about a US – UK trade agreement and I gained a sense that these guys knew the practicalities of what real trade was about.
Their remarks followed those of Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin. “As soon as the UK is ready, we are prepared to negotiate an attractive trade deal,” said Mnuchin in January. “They would go to the front of the line.” Good news but this is not to underestimate the very real problems posed by the acceptance of science and the implications of the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.
Brexit wound up becoming a reality— most farmers voted for Brexit and through the many meetings I spoke at through the winter, I found that they remain of that conviction. So although I voted as a Remainer, it is important to effectively move on, accept the vote and get on with the incredibly complex task of withdrawing from the European Union, re-building regulatory capability and initiate our own ability to negotiate on trade matters.
The UK has retained a strong economy to date, in some ways benefiting from the lower value of the pound and certainly focusing business minds. We remain a year from leaving the EU and with a transition period ahead, so our current trading arrangements remain in place for some time. However it is important to look now to future trade and the UK does offer an attractive market for Americans who want to buy and sell with a willing partner. Two-way trade between our countries already tops $100 billion per year, and it has nowhere to go but up.
There are complications, of course, especially in agriculture. We’ll face disagreements on biotechnology, chlorinated chicken, and hormone-produced beef. Americans are much more accepting of these practices, and it’s not at all clear how a new trade agreement would resolve our differences. It also becomes a sticking point on the only land border the UK will have between Northern Ireland and the Rep. of Ireland.
Frustrations over the EU’s anti-science policies were a major source of the Brexit vote, especially for many UK famers, but many of my countrymen who rejected the EU still aren’t comfortable with some U.S. policies. My own logical solution remains in proper labeling. If the science says it safe and the consumer is properly informed, let them make a free choice.
They continue to believe that GMOs ought to be labeled and I happen to agree, as it would improve understanding and acceptance of white (industrial), red (medical) and green (agricultural) biotechnology. I will continue to try and persuade my many US counterparts of this case and that there is nothing to fear from informing the consumer.
I am also a realist, if American farmers enjoy better access to UK markets, British farmers will struggle with the new competition because our costs of production here are higher. We have a population density that greatly restricts farming in many ways from responding to the competition. Although many consumers are loyal to UK products, they are first and foremost sensitive to prices: They will want to feed their families at the lowest cost possible, without caring too much about where their food comes from. A Brexit that produces cheaper food might not be good news for the UK farmer, but we are just 1% of the population.
On my farm in Yorkshire, we’re trying to cope by “Brexit-proofing” our operations, which is to say that we’re working to get ready for the increased competition, whether it comes from the United States or elsewhere. For our crops, we’ve adopted a no-till system to lower costs and improve long-term soil health. For our livestock, we’re shifting to breeds that will allow us to increase our cattle numbers while we reduce the cost of production. We’re also hoping to offer our cattle as environmental management services to others. This will be important as support shifts to the environment and the necessity to show public money for public goods.
A trade agreement would pose other challenges, too. As much as we’d like to improve our economic ties to the United States, we also need to maintain our connections to the European continent. The EU worries about how our soft border with Ireland might serve as a backdoor for American products. This is another problem that will resist an easy solution but there is no desire on either side to re-create hard borders. There might be smart electronic based solutions. I just hope there is a sense of imagination and common sense to overcome the hurdles.
We know one thing for certain: Changes are coming. We don’t know exactly what will happen. Change will happen in the EU too, as the withdrawal of the UK has budget implications for the future of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
Amid this shake up, I see some potential upside; the ability to tailor a new Agriculture policy to the unique nature of a maritime island. The best farmers will take advantage of our new circumstances and become more productive. The government can address some of the problems that the market can’t solve and provide a clear focus for UK agriculture to become more sustainable. It’s certainly exciting for the next generation offering them the chance to seize this moment of disruption and reshape farming in the UK.
They say starting a job gets you half way there, so if the UK finalizes the transition period with the EU, it allows that start to a trade agreement that helps both of our countries. The second half involves ensuring desire wins out over the devil in the detail!