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UK Farmers Launch Blistering Attack On Government Over Australian Trade Deal As Johnson Insists It's Not A Threat

UK Farmers Launch Blistering Attack On Government Over Australian Trade Deal As Johnson Insists It's Not A Threat
6 min read

Farmers have reacted with fury after learning Cabinet ministers are intent on striking a quota and tariff free trade deal with Australia.

Details of international trade secretary Liz Truss’s imminent deal with Australia emerged on Thursday, with the agreement set to be phased in over 15 years, despite warnings from lamb and beef producers that they will be undercut by Australian competitors who do not abide by the same welfare standards.

Farming sector bodies, including in Scotland and Wales and the new leader of the DUP, are united in their concern about the proposed trade deal, with some wary it could be the future template for deals with the United States, South America, and New Zealand.

The deal, which both sides want to finalise in time for the G7 summit next month, is also said to have pitted Environment Secretary George Eustice against his fellow Cabinet colleagues, who are keen to remove tariffs on Australian food imports.

Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association (NSA), told PoliticsHome that Cabinet ministers were prepared to sacrifice the industry “for greater economic gain elsewhere in the digital or financial sectors."

“If the deal goes as reported it would really show our ministers' true colours in terms of what the future holds for us. I think we've had so many strong commitments from ministers about upholding and supporting this industry and to give this away now would be shocking”.

Truss and ministers who are pushing for a tariff-free deal argue that it would result in cheaper food and greater choice for British consumers.

However, Eustice and colleagues including Michael Gove, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, are concerned that it would allow Australian farmers to supply the UK market at a lower cost than British producers and put their business models at risk.

Neil Shand, chief executive of the National Beef Association, said the deal was “scary” for what it could mean for the future of British farmers, expressing industry-wide concern that it could be a sign of things to come in trade negotiations with the US and other countries.

“This is a template that other countries will want to use,” he said.

“It’ll be New Zealand next, then the US, then those in the South Pacific. Everyone will want to copy and paste this deal and that is really scary.”

Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), said the proposed deal would have a “massive impact on British farming” even if tariffs are gradually reduced over time.

“We continue to maintain that a tariff free trade deal with Australia will jeopardise our own farming industry and will cause the demise of many, many beef and sheep farms throughout the UK.  This is true whether tariffs are dropped immediately or in 15 years’ time,” she said.

“We remain of the view that it is wholly irresponsible for government to sign a trade deal with no tariffs or quotas on sensitive products and which therefore undermines our own domestic economy and businesses.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday said doing free trade deals around the world presented “a fantastic opportunity for our farmers, for businesses of all kinds, for our manufacturers.”

He said: “We should see these new openings not as threats but as opportunities."

Concerns about the welfare standards within the Australian beef, lamb and sheep-meat markets include the fact live animals can be transported for 48 hours without water. In the UK, the limit is eight hours.

Hormone-injected beef is also produced in Australia and which cannot be sold in the UK.

The Animal Protection Index says Australia’s animal welfare standards fall below those of the UK.

There are also warnings about the potential environmental impact, with Shand from the National Beef Association concerned about the carbon footprint of an increase in beef being sent to the UK.

“There is a real lack of joined up thinking in terms of global trade and the path towards net zero. It makes no sense,” he said.

Earlier today Downing Street refused to rule out whether allowing hormone-treated beef to come into the UK, with the Prime Minister’s spokesman only saying the UK would not “compromise on our animal welfare or food standards”.

A government source however told PoliticsHome: “Hormone beef is banned in the UK and that won’t change as part of any deal”.

They added that the deal will only lead to small volumes of Australian lamb being imported as the country does not even use its current tariff-free quote for lamb.

“The idea that there are vast quantities of Australian meat sitting ready to come into the UK once we sign a deal is total rubbish,” they said.

In a letter seen by PoliticsHome written by Glyn Roberts, President of the Farmers’ Union of Wales, to Boris Johnson, he sets out how damaging it would be for Welsh farmers.

He said: “Claims that a liberal deal with Australia should not be feared since current import volumes are extremely low and unlikely to increase are clearly spurious. If such arguments had any merit then maintaining the current quota would not be controversial and would not be opposed by Australia.”

Around two per cent of Wales’ GDP is from farming and it has higher proportions of employment in agriculture than England.

Concerns of undercutting prices also relate to the Australian method of large-scale farming which reduces their costs.

For example, UK farmers must pay for the disposal of every single dead animal at £20 per time, whereas they can be buried in Australia. Higher welfare demands on the farmer by the UK government, are also costly, Stocker, from the NSA explained.

Trade in goods and services between Australia and the UK is around £20 billion, though meat sales between the two countries is a very small portion of this. Just 0.15 percent of Australian beef being exported to the UK. Fourteen percent of sheep meat imports to the UK come from Australia. 

Sam Lowe, a trade expert at the Centre for European Reform, said the impact of the proposed trade deal on the British market would be minimal as it was unlikely to lead to a huge increase in meat imports from Australia.

The “bigger question,” he said, was whether it was a sign of how the government would approach trade negotiations with bigger economies like the US and Brazil, which will also want greater access to the UK’s agricultural markets.

PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis. Sign up for our daily newslettters here

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