Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: AFP
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: AFP

Opinion |What are we eating? Pointers from trade talks between India and UK

India and UK have come up with a trade review documentan initial paper that lays down the current status and a wish list for a post-Brexit future

Everybody’s looking at a post-Brexit world—bright, dark or plain dull, depending entirely on your politics. India’s concerns are rather more pecuniary and transactional in nature. What’s in it for us, they ask the Brits, as the two nations try to agree the terms of bilateral trade after Britain exits the European Union on 29 March 2019. The Brits, too, want a clearer idea of what makes up their end of the stick.

With such an end in mind, the two countries have come up with a trade review document—an initial paper that lays down the current status and a wish list for a post-Brexit future. A lot, of course, will depend on the terms of the divorce, that is, to what extent this island-nation will still be bound by European trade provisions.

What does all of this have to do with what we eat? Read on:

The initial reaction of the British civil society to the India-UK paper has been one of alarm, definitely toward the darker end of the stick. The reason is that in the joint paper, the Indian side has raised objections to what are described as non-tariff trade barriers. The origin of these barriers clearly lie in current European Union regulations that are seen by Indian exporters as too stringent.

What kinds of barriers are Indian exporters unhappy about?

First in the list are endocrine disrupters—chemicals that can disrupt our hormones and cause tumours, birth defects, etc., when used in certain doses. These chemicals—there are some 800 of them but only a few have been investigated—are used in pesticides (therefore agriculture), toys, cosmetics and almost all plastics. The European Union has red-flagged 69 of these chemicals. The Indian side complains that, “out of the 69 chemicals identified, 34 have direct effect on India".

Indian assessment shows that in agriculture alone £1.8 billion worth of Indian exports could be hit. Products such as toys, chemicals, etc., “are all likely to be covered in the long run", the document says.

Second, rice. Almost 40% of India’s basmati rice exports to the EU are through Britain. The EU has strict regulations regarding the use of fungicides such as Carbendazim and Tricyclazole. The latter in particular is one of the cheapest available and is widely used for growing Basmati rice in India.

As of 30 December 2017, these restrictions are applicable to non-Basmati rice, too, and Indian exporters want more time to comply with the new regulations. According to a 2011 fact sheet published by the NGO, Pesticide Action Network Europe, “Carbendazim is a very dangerous chemical toxin, causing malformations in the foetus at very low doses and it is not known if a safe level exists. Carbendazim is capable of disrupting chromosome unfolding, can cause infertility and cancer."

Third, spices. The EU has strict rules governing the presence of aflatoxin—a class of toxic compounds—in products such as peanuts, and chillies and other spices. The Indians say the EU limits on aflatoxin are “very narrow"—even more so than in the US.

Aflatoxins are found in improperly stored commodities, which, when processed, can enter the human food chain, including through livestock feed. Contaminated poultry feed, for instance, is thought to be responsible for high levels of aflatoxins found in chicken meat and eggs in Pakistan. The Indian exporters say their exports comply with European regulation when tested in India but that aflatoxin levels can rise during transportation (it rises with humidity and moisture levels).

“This year alone, several containers from India were rejected from entry into the UK for slight variations from the permissible limits, with each container containing approximately 20 tonnes of produce," the Indian side said. These containers then had to be diverted to other countries where higher levels of aflatoxins are allowed.

So, what’s the problem with aflatoxins? Alarmingly, according to the European Food Safety Authority, some forms of aflatoxins are genotoxic and carcinogenic—i.e. they can cause genetic mutation and/or cancer.

There’s more: problems with chemicals in grapes; antibiotics in fish products; and food hygiene standards at processing plants involved in food containing milk products (the paper mentions saag paneer, daal makhni and paratha).

In my view, these regulations are not about to be dismantled by British authorities, no matter how precarious Britain’s economy post-Brexit. And that’s because of public opinion. Reared in post-War shortages, the British public is used to the very high European food safety standards by now, including a ban on genetically modified food. This is a fact of life in Britain today.

Furthermore, in her white paper on the terms of Brexit published in July, Prime Minister Theresa May lays down a “common rulebook for goods, including agri-food".

In addition, she pledged participation by the UK in those EU agencies that provide authorizations for goods in highly regulated sectors—namely the European Chemicals Agency, the European Aviation Safety Agency, and the European Medicines Agency.

Food pretty much tops the list of items the British Prime Minister mentions in her trade proposals. The UK and the EU, she notes, have “deeply integrated" goods markets, covering manufactured, agricultural, food and fisheries products. And her common rule book for agriculture, food and fisheries products encompasses “rules that must be checked at the border, alongside equivalence for certain other rules, such as wider food policy".

In India, the government of Punjab has read the signals correctly. It is talking to rice growers to ensure a “major reduction" in the use of five types of pesticides and fungicides in the production of rice.

“There will be a significant decline in use of hazardous chemicals in rice this year that cause hurdles in exports," K.S. Pannu, commissioner, Food and Drug Administration, Punjab, told The Economic Times.

That, surely, is the way to go—minimize the use of hazardous chemicals and elevate production and storage standards for all food items, not just the ones mentioned in the joint paper, rather than dive to low standards. And not just for exports. Meanwhile, this question just sort of hangs: Just what are we eating in India?

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1