Fears of death of UK beef farming as Australians eye up tenfold increase in exports after trade deal
20th May 2021
Ministers split over drive for agreement before next month's G7 summit Andrew Woodcock Political Editor @andywoodcock comments
Boris Johnson has been warned that his prospective trade deal with Australia could spell "a slow painful death" for Britain's beef farming industry,
after one of Australia's biggest producers said a zero-tariff agreement could increase exports to the UK tenfold.
The deal remained in the balance after a crunch meeting of cabinet ministers chaired by the prime minister on Thursday to review progress, with
Mr Johnson believed to back international trade secretary Liz Truss 's goal of inking a deal by the G7 summit in Cornwall.
Her plans have provoked a cabinet spat with environment secretary George Eustice and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove , who oppose
tariff-free access, while one of the oldest Tory thinktanks today warned it would put the party's "core countryside vote" at risk.
Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford issued a warning that an influx of cheap lamb from Australia would threaten the identity of the nation, saying:
"We're talking here about the things that make Wales ‘Wales'. That's what's at stake here."
Downing Street repeated Ms Truss's assurances that any agreement with Canberra "will include protections for our agriculture industry and won't
undercut UK farmers".
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But Mr Drakeford said that a level playing-field would require a tax and quota regime to take into account the obstacles Welsh producers face in
competing with their Australian counterparts.
"How can our hill farmers compete with Australian climates, how can our hill farmers compete with the space that is available for the huge farms
that they have in Australia?" he asked.
"How can we compete when our standards of animal welfare and environmental standards are higher than they are in Australia?"
And fears over the future of UK farms were heightened by comments from the chief executive of the Australian Agriculture Company (AACo)
Hugh Killen, who told the Financial Times : "In the event of a free trade deal that removes tariffs and quotas we could see [Australian beef]
exports double or triple. In fact, given exports are so small now it's possible they could even increase tenfold."
The chief executive of the UK's National Beef Association, Neil Shand, told The Independent that any deal struck with Australia would set a
template which producers like New Zealand and the US will demand to repeat in future trade agreements.
"Our import needs are relatively high, but flooding the domestic market with imports from too many countries will drive local prices down," putting
farmers' finances under pressure at a time when they are facing new environmental regulations and have only recently seen farm gate prices rise
to levels which reflect the cost of production, he said.
"The combination of trade deals, unrealistic environmental pressure and the withdrawal of agricultural support may lead sectors of our industry to
a slow, painful death," warned Mr Shand.
With ministers pushing to get a deal done by the time Australian PM Scott Morrison visits Cornwall in June, UK beef producers are concerned
that there seems to be "an agenda to get an agreement very quickly", he added.
Labour's shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry warned the government not to not to strike a deal just to "prove a political point"
about Britain's post-Brexit economic independence.
"I don't think there's likely to be a country around the world that is going into a deal saying, ‘Well yeah, it may decimate our farming industry, but
we need to have a deal in order to prove some political point'," Ms Thornberry told Sky News.
"Why would we want to undermine our farming industry? We have high standards in our country of animal welfare and food production, and we
don't want that undermined by cheap imports of food not produced to the same standard."
The National Farmers Union has warned that UK producers could be "thrown under a bus" by a no-tariff deal with a country whose vast feedlots
of thousands of animals contrast starkly with the more difficult terrain of the Welsh hills.
NFU Scotland chief executive Scott Walker said that Mr Killen's forecast of rapidly-rising exports "reinforces our concerns with this trade deal that
what we're going to see is a flood of extra product coming into this market that doesn't have the same production system as in the UK. We are not
And Patrick Holden, chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, said: "Our cattle come from a mainly grass-fed nation and we have one of the
best carbon footprints for beef production in the world.
"In contrast, imported Australian beef will likely be produced on feedlots, fed on grain and full of antibiotics and growth-promoting hormones."
Sarah Williams of the Greener UK coalition - which includes the RSPB, WWF and Friends of the Earth - raised concerns about a deal which
could see a sharp increase in meat being shipped around the world to Britain's plates.
"With so much focus on getting a deal, the consequences of any agreement are being sidelined, even if they undermine No 10's ambitions on the
environment and healthy food," said Ms Williams. "The PM needs to take more time and get this right."
The right-leaning Bow Group thinktank, whose patrons include senior Tories Norman Tebbit, Ann Widdecombe and John Redwood, said that the
government's own estimates suggest the deal as proposed would see a deterioration of up to 12.5 per cent in the UK's balance of trade with
Australia, with Imports of key produce like beef, lamb, and sugar from Down Under doubling.
Bow Group research fellow and former Vote Leave staffer Nic Conner said: "Boris has a countryside blind spot. For the Richmond Park set who
dominate Downing Street, the countryside is just a nice park to go for walks. Boris is leaving farmers out to dry with this, and potentially other
trade deals. It is yet another example of the contempt shown towards our rural communities by this current Downing Street team.
"Most UK citizens do not live in cities, and have a close social and economic connection to rural Britain and its agricultural sector, why would
they want to support this trade deal? The Conservatives are abandoning this core countryside vote."
Mr Johnson told Thursday's meeting with cabinet ministers that he wanted "to maximise the massive opportunities presented by post-Brexit trade
deals", said his official spokesperson.
The spokesperson played down the significance of the gathering, insisting it was a long-planned part of a series of discussions on the deal.
Wales secretary Simon Hart, who took part in the talks, later said that there had been "an awful lot of speculation" but stressed that "no deal has
been done" yet.
"Representations have been made loud and clear, they've been heard loud and clear," he said.