As we change the way we do business with the rest of the world after Brexit, the question of where we want to set our standards as an industry is finely balanced.
If we try to set them too low, we could find ourselves excluded from markets that require high levels of assurance.
Also, if we abandon voluntary programs built into insurance, such as the Voluntary Initiative, then we could end up with higher levels of costly regulations such as a tax on pesticides.
See also: British producers dismayed by ‘double standard’ of feed mills
But if we set our standards too high, we add costs to our production systems that could make us less competitive with imports.
Since becoming chairman of the Cereals, Oilseeds and Sugar Beet Board of the Red Tractor, this standards debate has been a bit heated.
Of course, the gap between national standards and import standards is not new. As a farmer, I remember writing articles 20 years ago about the unfairness of our politicians banning cheap pesticides or genetically modified (GM) technology, while sitting idly by when it came to to authorize imports which used exactly the same tools in production abroad.
The other irony here was that all too often the reason we import things like GM crops was that British breeders wanted access to cheap protein.
Calls to Red Tractor for parallel import standards to ensure a level playing field overlook some key issues.
For starters, there is no single import standard for grains that Red Tractor can copy. Different homes that use imports will have different standards, largely depending on how they manage risk.
Some are clearly not as demanding as Red Tractor, but others will repeatedly sample and test on a range of possible contaminants or seek similar insurance from Red Tractor.
And others, like Weetabix, Nestlé’s Shredded Wheat and a number of maltsters, will exclusively use UK Red Tractor-assured cereals.
Overall, Red Tractor uses a unique approach to insurance. This means it tends to the higher end of the standards spectrum to maximize the number of homes its farmers can access.
If Red Tractor decided to significantly reduce its audit requirements to match some of the less demanding importers, there could be unwanted consequences.
Many homes may decide that Red Tractor no longer gives them the level of assurance they need and additional checks will be required.
In addition, UK national programs such as the voluntary initiative, the campaign for responsible use of rodenticides or the Renewable Energy Directive will be undermined, risking increased regulation and leaving producers worse off.
In the future, compliance with these programs may be ensured through incentive-type payments for sustainable agriculture from the government.
This is something we should be looking at, as removing them from Red Tractor could significantly reduce the audit burden.
So, as we debate this issue of UK standards, we must do so with our eyes open, aware that an instinctive decrease could make us worse.
Meanwhile, we should step up our demands on regulators, trade negotiators and import users to treat domestic producers fairly and equitably.