East’s farmers ‘concerned’ as UK opens up to Aussie farm produce

Prime Minister Boris Johnson with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison

UK prime minister Boris Johnson with his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison in the rose garden of 10 Downing Street after agreeing heads of terms for a free trade deal between the UK and Australia - Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

East Anglian farmers are bracing themselves for uncertain times ahead as the UK government serves up a trade agreement with Australia as an hors d’oeuvre for deals to come.

As UK prime minister Boris Johnson and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison bumped elbows in the rose garden of Number 10 Downing Street on Tuesday (June 15), farming leaders were in the weeds trying to gain some clarity over what the as-yet-unratified deal means for the UK industry.

National Farmers’ Union (NFU) East director Gary Ford said farmers are worried about the effects of opening up the UK market (population 67m) to big-scale feed lots in Australia (population 25m) where 500 to 50,000 cattle are fattened up for a market which has a strong leaning towards exports (70%). These large-scale operations are said to make up 62% of its production. By contrast, the average beef herd in England is reportedly around 27 animals with just 4% of English beef farms home to more than 100 head of cattle. Sheep are also raised on a large scale and to different standards.

The deal eliminates tariffs on Australian beef imports after 10 years, with a rising duty-free quota starting at 35,000 tonnes in the first year. At the moment, the UK imports 2,467t of Australian beef. UK farmers supply the home market with 906,000t of beef, topped up by 362,000t in imports.

Sheep meat tariffs will also end in 10 years, with a rising quota of 25,000t allowed in tariff-free from year one. Currently, 9,121t are shipped in. Meanwhile, sugar tariffs will fall in eight years and dairy tariffs in five.

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Australian trade minister Dan Tehan and Mr Morrison described the deal as one which will drive economic growth in both countries. “Australian producers and farmers will receive a significant boost by getting greater access to the UK market,” they said.

While East Anglia is heavily geared towards arable production it includes beef and sheep production and also provides the industry with feed.

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“What we have got here is a massive ramping up of potential importing of Australian beef,” said Mr Ford. The deal set a precedent, he said, meaning other potential trading partners would look for similar accommodations. Farmers here were “worried” and “concerned”, he said. 

“Importing meat from 12,000 miles away does nothing for our net-zero ambitions,” he added.

“We have been clear throughout about the potential impact of trade deals that eliminate all tariffs on imports from the biggest agricultural exporters in the world.

But he added: “It appears that this agreement will include safeguards that attempt to strike a balance between liberalising trade and supporting UK farm businesses, as well as a reasonable period of time to allow UK farmers to adjust to the new trading environment. However, details remain very thin on the ground.”

Suffolk NFU deputy chairman Andrew Blenkiron, who farms at Euston, near Thetford, said the extra tonnage of non-tariff sugar would be “another kick” for sugar beet growers here. He didn’t feel the deal in itself would make a significant difference, but added: “It’s the principle that’s being established — limited checks and balances on standards that’s going to lead so many trade deals in the future.”

He went on: “The general principle of this type of deal is concerning for the future. It is tending to indicate that agriculture will be ‘sacrificed’ to enable other industries to benefit. While that may not be a bad thing for the country as a whole it isn’t necessarily good for UK farming.  

“Last year we saw a massive petition to government asking that the standards of imported food into this country be the same as the world leading standards that we produce to here. This is not the case with some of the food produced in Australia and many other countries around the world.”

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