The government has agreed a trade deal with Australia in principle. It is the first big post-Brexit deal that is not simply rolled over existing agreements. It is possible that it may have a significant impact on British farming, especially the livestock and sugar sectors and it will, almost certainly, be a model for all future deals.
Responding to the announcement of an Agreement in Principle for a UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement, NFU President Minette Batters said:
“We have been clear about our concerns over the potential impact of trade deals that completely eliminate all tariffs on imports from the biggest agricultural exporters in the world.
“While details remain very thin on the ground, it appears that the agreement will include important safeguards that attempt to strike a balance between liberalising trade and supporting UK farm businesses, as well as a reasonable time period to allow UK farmers to adjust to the new trading environment.
“We await further details of the agreement to understand whether these safeguards are sufficient, and in particular that they can be deployed effectively should imports rise to an unmanageable level leading to significant market disruption."
Minette Batters continued:
“I am concerned that today’s announcement appears to have made no mention of animal welfare and environmental standards. While the government has previously been keen to highlight how our Free Trade Agreements will uphold our high standards of food production, there has always been a question mark over how this can be achieved while opening up our markets to food produced to different standards. We will need to know more about any provisions on animal welfare and the environment to ensure our high standards of production are not undermined by the terms of this deal.
“The ultimate test of this trade deal will be whether it contributes to moving farming across the world onto a more sustainable footing, or whether it instead undermines UK farming and merely exports the environmental and animal welfare impact of the food we eat.
The government must talk to industry
“It is critical that the government now engages with industry on the details of the deal as soon as possible and that Parliament is involved much more during the final stages of the negotiations to ensure it has sufficient oversight of the agreement. This means providing both Houses with the details well in advance of ratification alongside a proper impact assessment so Parliament can ensure it is satisfied that this deal is right for all of the UK – consumers, workers, farmers and other businesses alike.
“The Trade and Agriculture Commission will have a vital role to play in assessing these aspects of the deal in the near future and it is crucial it is up and running soon so that it can provide its report to Parliament on the impact of the deal in good time ahead of ratification.
Domestic policies should support sustainable farming
“This trade deal, and those that follow it, will, I hope, provide UK farmers with opportunities to export more great British food abroad, although we should be realistic about the extent of those prospects with large net-exporters such as Australia. We should also be clear about the likelihood that these deals will mean a significant increase in competition in our domestic agricultural markets.
“The UK government must step up and work with the industry in improving its competitiveness, through domestic policies that support productivity and sustainable farming, and through export policies that upscale our ability to open and maintain overseas markets, something the UK has been poor at in recent years compared to foreign competitors.
Impact on future trade deals
Looking ahead, the NFU has said that it is vital the UK government approaches its other negotiations with countries such as New Zealand, USA, Canada and Mexico – all major agricultural producers and exporters – on its own terms and ensures that future deals balance access to UK agricultural markets with at least the same level of opportunities for British agri-food exports.
We will continue to lobby government, who must realise that the cumulative impact of these deals could have a major impact on UK farming. If handled badly it may become impossible for some farm businesses to continue to compete.