Scottish beef and lamb production could be decimated and the rural economy severely impacted if a tariff-free trade deal is signed with Australia, the UK’s farmers’ unions have said.
Cabinet ministers are expected to discuss a possible Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Australia later this week, with an ambition of shaking hands on a deal at the G7 summit in Cornwall next month.
However Ministers are reportedly split over the negotiations, and it is understood Environment Secretary George Eustice is at loggerheads with International Trade Secretary Liz Truss over granting tariff-free access to Australian farmers under any proposed deal. UK Government trade minister Liz Truss.
NFU president Minette Batters told a press conference the unions were particularly concerned about the sensitive areas of beef, sugar and lamb..
Ms Batters also pointed out standards required of producers in the UK and Australia were markedly different.
“While in the UK we are putting legislation in place that restricts farmers from being able to export live animals across the 20- mile stretch of the Channel, Australia can export live animals further than any other country in the world. There are no rules or laws limiting transport of up to 48 hours without water” she said.
“The average size of a suckler herd here in the UK is 30 cows, and in Australia it’s 40,000 -50,000 animals in feedlot systems – which aren’t allowed in the UK . We need checks and balances in place.”
NFU Scotland president Martin Kennedy warned of the volume of livestock production in Australia and the threat of unfettered imports.
“Beef is the engine room of the farming industry in Scotland and the oversupply likely to happen would completely undermine our markets, so from an economic perspective we are seriously concerned,” he said.
Both farming leaders criticised the absence of a statutory Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC) which is legally required to scrutinise all trade deals.
Downing Street said negotiators were discussing the “final elements” of a deal and that they hoped to get an agreement in principle by June.
“The Government is united in wanting to secure an ambitious free trade deal with Australia that benefits businesses across the UK,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.
“Any agreement will include protections for the agricultural industry and won’t undercut UK farmers or compromise our high standards.”
Labour said British farmers would expect the Government to protect their livelihoods.
Shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry said: “If Liz Truss cannot negotiate a trade deal with Australia on the terms she herself proposed last year, the fault lies squarely at her door.
“So instead of blaming her Cabinet colleagues or the NFU for these difficulties, she should get on with her job, and deliver the deal that she promised.
“It’s perfectly normal that the Australian government should try to get the best possible deal for its agricultural mega-corporations.
“But British family farmers have a right to expect that Liz Truss will do the same for them, not sell out their livelihoods for the price of a quick trade deal, and a cheap headline at the G7 summit.”