Will animal welfare and trade policy makers ever see eye to eye?

By Professor Lisa Collins, University of Leeds, Professor Tony Heron, University of York and Professor Fiona Smith, University of Leeds

This month saw the publication of the Government’s Action Plan For Animal Welfare. With an entire section devoted to international trade and advocacy, the Action Plan adds further pressure on the Department for International Trade to ensure animal animal welfare standards are not forgotten in the ongoing negotiations, not least in the current talks with Australia.

Recognising in law that animals are sentient beings is a landmark step for animal welfare in the UK. Whilst the Animal Welfare Act 2006 recognised that animals feel pain and can suffer, the new Action Plan for Welfare goes beyond this, recognising through a series of bills that animals are sentient — that have the capacity to feel and experience positive and negative emotional states, such as joy, pleasure, pain and fear, and sets out plans for an expert committee to hold ministers accountable for animal welfare in policy.  The Action Plan sets out a wide-ranging suite of reforms that will touch the lives of farm animals, wildlife and pets both on and off the UK’s shores, and bringing animal health and welfare fully into discussions and actions for the 25-year Environment Plan.

The Action Plan, produced by the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), claims the Government’s work on animal welfare extends beyond its own borders; it wants to solidify and enhance its position as a global leader in this field by promoting high animal welfare standards across the world. It states “we will build upon the opportunities presented by our departure from the EU to build an independent trading policy, in which animal welfare will play an integral part and which will complement our strong domestic standards. Our manifesto was clear that in all of our trade deals, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”.

Interestingly the extent of the integrity of animal welfare in trade policy is about to become evident as the publication of the Action Plan for Animal Welfare coincides with the UK positioning itself to strike a free-trade agreement (FTA) with Australia, which if secured, as is looking very likely, would arguably constitute the UK’s most significant foreign policy achievement since it left the EU. Yet, we know the deal won’t be to everyone’s liking.  As reported by Peter Foster and George Parker of the Financial Times, the terms of the deal have been the subject of a ferocious battle in cabinet between Environment Secretary George Eustice and Trade Secretary Liz Truss over the subject of agricultural tariffs

What’s at stake?

As a net agricultural goods exporter, Australia sees the UK as a significant market opportunity, especially for its beef, lamb, dairy and sugar exports. At the moment, its access to the UK is controlled by tariffs and so-called tariff-rate quotas (TRQs), whereby only limited quantities of certain goods that meet UK food safety, quality and animal welfare standards can be imported tariff free. Australia, however, is pushing to have these tariffs and TRQs abolished. It is also calling for the elimination ‘where possible’ of non-tariff barriers on agricultural trade that it regards as unnecessarily trade restricting. In public, Australia is not being drawn on which of these non-tariff barriers it is targeting, although its opposition to the UK’s hormone beef import ban is well known. 

At the same time, the prospect of direct competition with Australian beef and lamb is probably the last thing the British farming sector needs at the moment. Although the overall economic effects of a free-trade deal with Australia will be modest, it could have disproportionate impacts in Wales and Scotland where upland farmers are already reeling from the trade disruption caused by Brexit and the phasing out of EU subsidies, not to mention Covid. 

Support for Farmers to improve welfare

While farmers look on to see the outcome of trade negotiations and prepare for the resulting ramifications, they may also be required to alter practices in line with Defra’s Animal Welfare Action Plan, which sets out  clear intentions to give more powers to police to tackle livestock worrying, and from 2022, to provide a source of financial support for farmers to improve health and welfare standards through the new Animal Health and Welfare Pathway. This will include support for biosecurity improvements and diagnostic testing to reduce the risk of disease spread and to encourage early diagnosis to ultimately reduce the impacts of infectious disease. The Pathway will also support the implementation of change in production systems for public-supported welfare enhancements. This will be linked to more transparent food labelling, allowing consumers more easily to support the production systems that they value. To be most effective, this needs to be supported with investment in research that demonstrates the welfare potential of different systems, and balances this against the key issues of sustainability, production sufficiency and farmer livelihoods. Turner-esque aesthetics are appealing on packaging, but we need to ensure the reality matches up to the painted idyll.

The Action Plan states that most live exports of animals for fattening and slaughter will be banned and there will be further consideration on transport conditions for animals more broadly. Alongside this, further reforms to welfare at slaughter will be considered. Whilst many animal welfare advocates were hopeful that the Plan would ban the use of cages for laying hens and farrowing crates for pigs, instead it laid out intentions to examine these two housing systems as part of wider reforms. Farrowing crates represent a welfare compromise for the sow, severely restricting her movements for up to five weeks until the piglets have weaned. However, they are typically associated with higher piglet survival than fully open farrowing systems where piglets are at risk of being inadvertently crushed or suffocated by their mother moving around. Alternatives, such as the PigSAFE and other freedom farrowing systems4, allow low piglet mortality whilst permitting the sow freedom of movement and the capacity to better mother her offspring. N8 facilities such as the National Pig Centre at the University of Leeds and the C-DIAL at the University of Newcastle offer opportunities to demonstrate the welfare benefits of such alternative systems.

Whilst improvements through the Plan may reduce the individual risks and associated severity of individual welfare ‘hazards’ on the animals experiencing them, there is a significant gap on the impact of cumulative experience and how best to protect animals from a lifetime of more minor negatives. Whilst there are major issues to contend with, the minor issues tend to be overlooked. The cumulative impacts of repeated, or many different smaller issues is one that needs more investigation and scientists and policy-makers should work together to determine best practice here, for all farmed species. 

Not one commission but two

Alongside pressure to meet promises in the Animal Welfare Action Plan, the UK’s deal with Australia comes hot on the heels of not one but two other separate reviews commissioned by the Government, both of which have produced recommendations for upholding UK food standards. The National Food Strategy (NFS) recommends a mandatory ‘verification’ system for FTA partners’ goods to enter the UK market tariff and quota free. Under this, food imports from the country concerned would need to show that they met a set of ‘core standards’, including but not limited to standards on food safety, animal welfare and the prevention of severe environmental impacts. 

The Trade and Agricultural Commission (TAC), meanwhile, recommends that the Government ‘should work with trading partners within future FTA negotiations to lower tariffs and quotas to zero’, but only where the partner country can demonstrate ‘outcome equivalence’ regarding a ‘core set of standards’ in the areas of climate change, environmental, ethical and animal welfare standards. The TAC report recommends that imports failing to meet an equivalence test should be treated as instances of an ‘unfair’ trade practice and subject to ‘countervailing duties’ (import tariffs beyond those normally applied to imports).

The policy proposals offered by these two commissions are genuinely innovative and worthy of further study. If implemented, they could serve to disentangle the use of tariff and non-tariff measures for the purpose of upholding high standards from their use as economic protectionism. However, they also share three common problems.  The first is that it is far from clear that using tariffs and non-tariff barriers in the ways proposed would be legal under WTO rules, where the issue of trade discrimination on the basis of different production methods is still a highly controversial one

The second is that it is unclear what incentives trade partners like Australia would have for signing up to such a system, since the logical response would surely be that their own farming systems may be different, but they are hardly unfair.

Third, and most importantly, it is ultimately up to the Government to decide which, if any, of these recommendations it wishes to take up and enshrine in its FTAs. This, after all, remains the central political problem raised by the Australian deal – how to satisfy the competing interests of different stakeholders and who to blame when things go wrong.

With the Australia deal imminent, we get to see for the first time how, in practical terms, the Government reconciles the tension between its simultaneous commitment to upholding UK food and animal welfare standards while liberalising trade through bilateral free-trade agreements.

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Policy Hub professor appointed as special advisor to the ITC

Professor Fiona Smith, who sits on the Food Systems Policy Hub Working Group, has been appointed to the role of special advisor by the House of Commons International Trade Committee.

Professor Smith, who is a professor of international economic law, is the N8 Chair in Agrifood Regulation at the University of Leeds, and Associate Director for Agrifood Supply Chains at the university’s Global Food and Environment Institute. In her new role she will provide expertise in order to assist the Committee with its scrutiny of the UK’s post-Brexit trade deals.

The International Trade Committee (ITC) was established in 2016 and is appointed by the House of Commons to scrutinise the spending, administration and policy of the Department for International Trade (DIT), and other associated public bodies.

DIT is currently negotiating Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with the US, Australia and New Zealand. In addition, the Government is expected to apply to accede to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Further trade negotiations are likely to begin soon, as the Government pursues its objective of having 80% of UK trade covered by FTAs within the next three years.

In her role as special advisor, Professor Smith will use her relevant expertise in trade policy and trade law to support the Committee with FTA scrutiny.

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Applications open for POST Policy Fellowship

The N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub has teamed up with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) to offer two Policy Fellowships for 2021

Applications are now open for the fellowships, which will see two doctoral students spend three months working with POST in Westminster to produce a POSTnote from start to finish. This includes scoping the topic, conducting interviews with senior stakeholders from across academia, government, industry and the not-for-profit sector, then drafting, editing and finalising the document.

The fellowships are available to current doctoral students registered at one of the N8 Universities (Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and York) working in an area of agrifood research. The two successful candidates will be required to interact with a wide range of stakeholders to better inform parliamentarians, consumers, businesses and policy-makers on one of  he following:

Managing soils for carbon and plant productivity – This POSTnote will summarise the evidence base for measures such as no till, biochar and crop diversification, including whether they maintain carbon storage and resilience to the impacts of climate change on soils and plant productivity.

Genome editing and the future of food –  This briefing will update previous gene editing POSTnotes to identify emerging trends with respect to food, feed and food supplements and provide an overview of new technologies and products in development.

By the end of their time at POST, the successful candidates will have learnt how to write for policy makers with balance, impartiality and succinctness, alongside developing a unique understanding of Westminster, forged important relationships with key stakeholders, and delved into a novel and exciting topic of research.

For more information and to apply please visit https://post.parliament.uk/n8-agrifood-fellowship-2021/. Applications must be submitted by 20 June 2021. Interviews will be online on the 5 July 2021. For enquiries please email anthonia.james@n8agrifood.ac.uk.

The 2021 Policy Fellowships follow a similar partnership between N8 AgriFood and POST in 2020, when Joe Llanos was selected as the successful candidate to take part in a three month internship with POST. Joe, then a fourth year PhD student from the University of Sheffield, worked in Westminster producing a POSTnote entitled: A resilient UK food system.

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Genome editing and the future of food

The Food Standards Agency has published the report from the workshop it hosted with the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub on genome editing.

In December 2020, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub jointly held an online workshop entitled ‘Genome Editing and the Future of Food’.

The workshop was attended by more than 60 stakeholders from academia, government and industry.

Genome editing (GE) technologies are becoming more widespread and have distinct advantages over more traditional genetic modification (GM) technologies. The workshop aimed to horizon scan for emerging GE techniques in our food supply systems to inform future risk assessment and risk management decisions.

The FSA has now published the summary report from the workshop, providing a snapshot of the current and potential future use of GE in food and feed based on discussions from the event.

The report, which gives three GE case studies covering disease resistance in bananas, disease resistance in pigs, and genome editing of microbes in the food system, can be read online here.

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Policy making in food systems

By Food Systems Policy Hub Director Professor Bob Doherty, University of York; N8 AgriFood Academic Lead Professor Katherine Denby, University of York; Professor Lisa Collins, University of Leeds

In January 2021 the Office for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published its report ‘Making better policies for food systems’. Here three N8 AgriFood academics jointly review its findings and respond on behalf of the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub.

It has become something of a truism in food policy to describe food as constituting a ‘system’ (Doherty et al, 2019; Ericksen, 2008; Kneen, 1993 ; Sobal et al., 1998 ; Tendall et al., 2015 ). Yet this concept is invoked far more often than actually applied satisfactorily. A notable exception is the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) new report on Making Better Policies for Food Systems which was presented by the OECD at our recent N8 Policy AgriFood Policy Hub webinar. Highlighting the “triple challenge” of food security/nutrition, livelihoods, and environmental ] sustainability, it raises a fundamental question for food policy in the 21st century: How to “simultaneously make progress on these three dimensions?” It’s not an easy question to answer.

Taking a genuinely food systems approach (see Figure 1) is the first step incorporating all elements and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation, consumption, and disposal of food. This includes key system outcomes, such as food security, availability, utilization, safety, access, environmental outcomes, livelihoods and of course food waste. In addition, the system also includes the socioeconomic and environmental drivers – the role of the environment, people, processes, infrastructure, institutions, governance and the effects of their activities on our society, economy, landscape and climate. Finally, it recognises the forward and backward feedback loops, trade-offs, synergies and unintended consequences among system activities.

Setting policy in the food system is complex as we source food on different geographical and temporal scales, and from thousands of producers (570 million farmers globally). In the UK, we are experiencing a time of change and opportunity, with a series of key policy initiatives including the 25-year Environment Plan, new Agricultural Bill, and new National Food Strategy just to name a few. So what can policy makers learn from the OECD report?

First, the Making Better Policies for Food Systems report outlines the shortcomings and associated negative costs of our current food system including dietary ill health which is responsible for one in five deaths globally, 73% of all global deforestation, 80% of biodiversity loss and 21-37% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, 570 million farmers are reliant on the food system and in many countries is a key economic sector, for example in the UK food and drink manufacture is the largest manufacturing sector at £120 billion employing 4.3 million people.

Second, the report shows that good policymaking needs to be coherent and should consider the interlinkages between food security/nutrition, environment and livelihoods and potential spill over impacts of an individual policy into other parts of the system. For example, incentivising the
production of more fruit and vegetables in the UK to facilitate improvements in dietary health requires a multi-policy framework and should consider:

  • Demand side interventions, public information, digital interventions to encourage fruit and
    vegetable consumption which is affordable
  • Firmer regulations e.g. on promotion of unhealthy foods
  • Fiscal measures such as taxes on unhealthy foods or incentives for fruit and vegetable promotion
  • Preferential Business loans for new innovative companies focused on interventions to transform to a healthy food system for people and planet

The N8 Food Systems Policy Hub recommends we should also consider any implications for resource use in production, e.g. increased demand for water and chemical inputs, the need for skills and training in horticulture coupled with stimulating via favourable business loans new food business models aiming to supply more healthy produce into current food desert locations. The pandemic has provided a window of opportunity to initiate change as the importance of dietary health has been amplified. This coherent policy making requires increased collaboration across government between Defra, BEIS, the Department of Health and Social Care, Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government amongst others.

Third, creating policy coherence is not easy and in some areas there is friction on debates regarding trade-offs e.g. between reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and productivity/livelihoods, and in the use of genome editing and ensuring the technology is used for public good. To manage this
friction it is important to prioritise balancing the different interests and engaging all stakeholders. Policy makers in these circumstances need to gather independent robust evidence, identify diverging interests which need reconciliation, identify differences in values which need creative solutions and also identify a range of policy options as ‘silver bullets’ are rarely available. Debates between conventional and alternative are not always helpful and more integrated approaches are required. Useful approaches in these contested policy areas include independent accountability mechanisms e.g. carbon budgets from the IPCC, guidelines, building new coalitions from stakeholders with differing values coupled with the role of innovation. There is also a growing need for deliberative approaches such as public dialogues and citizen assemblies to develop societal consensus when tackling complex policy decisions.

It is clear that the food system needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and requires a range of policies which reduce synthetic nitrogen fertilizer use and promote green fertiliser use e.g. cover crops and leys, carbon profiling of farms to promote carbon sequestration, low emissions slurry technology, and new regulations on manure management. Animal products provide an important source of protein to consumers globally, with low intakes associated with malnutrition and health consequences (FAO 2018). They also represent a significant source of income on a global scale, representing 40% of the global value of agricultural output worldwide. However, there is a recognised need to address the key issue of greenhouse gas emissions in these production systems, particularly for ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats and buffalo) but also, albeit to a lesser extent, for monogastric species (pigs, poultry). The global scale of the issue is significant: approximately one third of the earth’s surface is used either for grazing, or for feed-crop production for livestock (Herrero et al 2013). There is no single identified ‘silver bullet’ to fix these issues. Instead, the multifaceted perspectives on, priorities for, and values surrounding the livestock sector mean there are multiple alternate versions of solutions for healthy, sustainable future livestock production systems. Examples include farming approaches that move towards greater circularity in production economies and integration of crop-livestock systems offer one avenue to driving down emissions as
well as improving soil health, and water and air quality. Other key solutions could lie in genetic selection and breeding for methane reduction, finding alternative, efficient sources of protein for animal diets, and reducing losses through endemic disease. Reflecting the multitude of approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and more broadly, improving the environmental footprint of the livestock sector will require the support of a network of interlinking and complementary policies; there are numerous examples of such a multi-levered policy innovations being adopted in a range of different countries.

A thriving and innovative plant breeding sector is critical for maintaining crop yield gains made over the last 50 years in the face of climate change and the dynamic nature of pests and diseases (enhanced by changing climate and international trade). New traits are also needed, for example, for new farming systems, to help reduce GHG emissions from livestock or to extend growing seasons. Genome editing offers the potential to develop traits more quickly than conventional plant breeding and help address a number of challenges in the UK food system including environment, nutrition and
livelihood goals but policy changes are required to drive use of the technology for public good. The costs associated with current regulatory processes for genome-edited crops mean only “blockbuster” economic traits in major arable crops are likely to progress, despite the importance of fruit and vegetables in healthy diets and a realisation of the need to increase UK consumption of fruit and veg, and benefits of growing more fruit and vegetables within the UK. Different genome editing approaches carry different environmental and food safety risks. Many traits can be tackled with genome editing without incorporation of foreign DNA (resulting in an outcome that could be achieved with conventional breeding, albeit more slowly) and specific approaches need to be
distinguished both in policy-making, risk assessment and public information.

The OECD report provides some excellent international and UK examples of how we can expand the range of different tools for more coherent policy making in food systems. From the comprehensive citizens involvement in the development of the Canadian Food policy and its food systems council, the Future generations act in Wales where policy making decisions take into account the wellbeing of future generations, the Nutrient Score labelling system in France and Spain, farmer incentives for carbon sequestration in New Zealand and food in all policies by the London Food Board just to name a few. It’s clear our collaborative interdisciplinary food systems work across N8 AgriFood provides an important foundation for supporting policy makers in developing food system policy interventions. To this end, we launched the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy hub in November 2020 to tackle these crucial food system policy challenges.

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