Farming leaders have warned that a proposed free trade deal with Australia could allow food produced to lower environmental and welfare standards to undercut UK producers.
A political row blew up this week after it emerged that the Department for International Trade is pushing to offer Australian farmers tariff- and quota-free access to British food markets as part of a free trade deal.
The row is reported to have pitted trade secretary Liz Truss against environment secretary George Eustice with the latter opposing unfettered access for Australian producers. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to have the casting vote with reports suggesting he will come down on the side of former environment secretary Truss.
Campaign groups have previously highlighted how Australia, along with other countries that are targets for future trade deals like the United States and India, have weaker rules than the UK in areas such as the use of pesticides, antibiotics and growth promoters.
Tanya Steele, chief executive at WWF, said a deal allowing tariff-free and quota-free access for food and agricultural imports to the UK could “drive a coach and horses” through government efforts to improve the environmental impact of British farming. “Our future trading relationships can make us stronger, greener and more resilient, leading in the industries of the future, including sustainable farming. But not if we align ourselves with the laggards on climate and nature, inviting lower standards of production onto our shelves and exporting our environmental footprint, rather than reducing it,” said Steele.
There are concerns too that trade deals could lead to “a flood of cheap, unhealthy foods into the UK”. Johnson has previously used Australian confectionery brand Tim Tams, which is almost 50% sugar by volume, as a prop to promote the benefits of free trade between the two countries.
The Times reported that under plans being negotiated tariffs of 20% levied on exports of Australian beef to the UK would be phased out over the next 15 years to zero, in line with the terms for the EU.
NFU president Minette Batters expressed her concern that UK farmers would struggle to compete against other countries that do not face the same high animal welfare and environmental standards. “The British government faces a choice. It must recognise that opening up zero tariff trade on all imports of products such as beef and lamb means British farming, working to its current high standards, will struggle to compete,” said Batters.
She also warned that the Australia deal would set a precedent for future trade deals with countries like the United States and Brazil. “The government must assess how the impact of these concessions combined across multiple trading partners will impact on domestic producers and the rural economy,” Batters said.
Downing Street has made clear that all imports from Australia would have to meet animal welfare and food safety standards, according to The Times.
Foodservice is a likely destination for Australian beef and lamb due to the cost driven nature of the sector and the absence of origin labelling requirements.
It is unclear, however, just how much cheaper – if at all – Australian meat would be when the costs of refrigeration and transportation are factored in.