EU Referendum

EU Referendum: spilling the beans on cucumbers


When on 19 May Jeremy Paxman opened his programme on "Who Really Rules Us?", declaring that: "Everywhere you look, the European Union is telling us what to do", he chose to illustrate his point by brandishing a cucumber and regaling us with details of Commission Regulation (EEC) No 1677/88.

The very least you would think the BBC might be able to trail in the wake of Huffington Post and revisit its own ignorance. Having made such a meal of the "cucumber regulation, it should now broadcast a report on the blog by UNECE's executive secretary, Christian Friis Bach.

Headed, "Cucumbers: Blame the UN", Bach writes that, as the UK referendum on Brexit approaches, he feels "obliged to stand forward and confess" – something which the BBC is clearly unable to do. The European Union, he says, is often criticized for dealing with ridiculous things such as the shape of cucumbers: banning the curved ones and imposing straight ones on farmers and consumers alike. But, he adds: "this story is wrong for three reasons".

The first and foremost of these reasons is not the European Union that has developed the current standard for cucumbers. It is the UN or to be more specific Bach's organization, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

In fact, he says, the European Union does not have a specific cucumber standard but traders can refer to the UNECE standard to meet the EU's general marketing requirements. Therefore, "don't blame the EU, blame us".

The second reason Bach puts in that the standard does not force all cucumbers to be equally straight. It is correct that an Extra Class or Class I cucumber can only bend 1 centimetre for each 10 centimetres. But a Class II cucumber can actually bend 2 centimetres for each 10 centimetres. There are straight cucumbers and not so straight cucumbers.

But the third and most important reason for why the story is wrong, is because these agricultural standards are very useful and widely used. The standards not only facilitate trade, they also help producers get a better price for better quality.

Traders in the UK can buy cucumbers from Spain or Morocco, or any other country by simply referring to the standard. They will then be able to compare prices, knowing exactly what they will get. There is no need to travel all the way to where the cucumbers are grown to inspect them.

The quality is defined by the standard. So, if you order Class I cucumbers, you will get Class I cucumbers. This is trade facilitation at its best. And the producers of Class I cucumbers, wherever they might be, will get the premium for a Class I cucumber.

But, says Bach, you could argue, why do they have to be straight? What about all the curved cucumbers that are then wasted? Should we not fight food waste?

Bach readily concedes that we should do this. But, he says, this is also part of the logic behind the cucumber standard. Very curved cucumbers are difficult to store in boxes and, when transported, they bump into each other and end up with bruises, especially when travelling longer distances.

This means that they will get soft spots and start rotting before even arriving at the supermarket and will have to be thrown away. Moreover, many cucumbers are processed by machines, and, if they are very curved, they will get stuck in the machine and have to be thrown away.

Finally, experience shows that consumers tend to choose straight cucumbers, so even if the curved ones make it to the shop, some of them will probably be wasted anyway.

It is therefore, Bach says, better to sell and eat curved cucumbers locally in the producing countries. Curved cucumbers are just as delicious as straight ones but not every cucumber is meant to travel and end up in a supermarket. Curved ones can be sold directly by local farms or on local markets or, if no longer edible, they can be collected and used as animal feed or turned into compost.

On that basis, Bach asserts that the cucumber standard is a good standard. And the world needs significantly more cooperation on standards of all kinds, be it in the UN or in the EU. And even if you do not agree, he concludes, then remember if you hear the cucumber critique: do not blame the EU. Credit the UN.

And with this sentiment, we completely agree. Without the predictability that a uniform and enforceable standard gives buyers, trade in cucumbers and the many other products covered by UNECE standards would be far more costly and difficult. Those standards are as important to traders as AAA standards are to battery dealers.

Unfortunately, with the willing complicity of the media, such standards have come to represent the very essence of pettifogging regulation, with the flatulent man-child Alexander (aka Boris) Johnson capitalising on the collective ignorance of the "leavers", poking "fun" at things he clearly doesn't understand.

Through this stupidity, though, he and his ilk have failed to capitalise on one of the most potent weapons available to the "leave" campaign – the globalisation of standards.

The very fact that standards essentially to the conduct of trade are no longer made by the EU but by regional bodies such as UNECE, and global bodies such as Codex, means that we no longer need the EU to drive the development of a European single market.

Right now, a global market is in the making, and as long as we're in the EU, we have no votes at the "top tables". They are no longer in Brussels, but in Geneva, Rome, Paris, Washington, Vancouver, and in cities throughout the world. The cucumber standard is produced in Geneva, but the illustrated brochure is prepared by the OECD in Paris (illustrated).

The "killer point" for the "leave" campaign is that countries like Norway have a vote – but we do not. We have 1/28th of a "common position", which we are obliged to follow. In campaign terms, we've lost a phenomenally important debating point, merely so that "Boris" can indulge his obsession on "bent banana" rules.

Interestingly, I was writing about UNECE and cucumber standards on this blog in June 2014, but our high and mighty "eurosceptic aristocracy" have been far too grand to take notice - or even understand the implications of what I've been writing. Many of them seem to cultivate and take a perverse pride in their own ignorance.

But here we are, with one day to go before polling day and I'm writing about the failure of the "leave" campaign to deploy its resources properly, while no less than the executive secretary of UNECE spills the beans on cucumbers.

Alongside Pete, though, we are aware that such issues are highly sensitive and careless discussion on them might well see another MP slain. When it comes to cucumbers, though, such passions are inevitable.

Nevertheless, win or lose, when it comes to the "debriefing" on this campaign, we won't have to look very far for reasons to explain its poor performance.