Trade deals: Farming, fishing and rural voices

Questions over future of lamb. Photograph Russell Bruce for Newsnet

By Russell Bruce

Lots of speculation on the implications of an Australian/UK trade deal. The issue for Johnson’s Brexit government is to finally land a trade deal that is not just a mini roll over of EU trade deals with other countries around the world. That puts a lot pressure on Liz Truss and UK negotiators to get a deal nailed down, whether it is in the interests of farmers or rural areas or not. What’s not to like about cheaper food the Brexiteers argue? Hormone induced growth in Australian beef mean animals grow faster and need less feed. This is all about cost at the expense of quality and food safety. A 2020 study concluded that a UK /Australia deal might benefit the UK economy by just 0.02% of GPD but that parts of the UK would be worse off.

The EU in 1989, banned the importation of meat that contained artificial beef growth hormones approved for use and administered in the United States. Originally, the ban covered six such hormones but was amended in 2003 to permanently ban one hormone —estradiol-17β — while provisionally banning the use of the other five. Several countries use growth hormones; US, Canada, Brazil and Australia. The use of antibiotics in animal feed in some countries is another major concern for European producers as it is indiscriminate and unrelated to the treatment of animals who may need antibiotics in the same way as humans with an infection. The antibiotics incorporated into animal feed largely pass through the animals and are known to polute waterways with potential harm to human health.

Today, antibiotics are routinely fed to livestock, poultry, and fish on industrial farms. Globally 160,000 tons of antibiotics were fed to livestock in 2020 and has been increasing year on year. “80% of all antibiotics used in the United States are fed to farm animals”. Antibiotics are commonly fed to farm animals to increase the weight of the animals” It is not difficult to understand that volume is extremely valuable to the companies producing antibiotics for livestock and therefore have a powerful interest in maintaining and protecting their bottom line. Far from reducing standards we need to tighten up so that antibiotics in livestock are only used for treatment and not to promote rapid growth. Realistically this needs to be achieved at multi-state level and the EU is an obvious place to start. Unfortunately we are no longer in the EU to help promote better livestock practice and higher food standards.

The danger of tarrif free Australian beef and lamb arriving as a consequence of a deal Johnson and Truss are desperate for is very real. Never enter negotiations in a state of desperation. Johnson did this on his EU deal and the Australians know they have Liz Truss over a barrel. Anything given to the Australians in the course of negotiations means it is open house when negotiations start with other countries with the real danger the boundaries are pushed a bit further every time.

According to the FT the UK currently imports just 1,567 tonnes of beef from Australia which amounts to just 0.5% of beef imports. Revenue and Customs figures indicate Australian lamb worth £45.7 million was imported into the UK in 2020. Questions therefore arise as to whether a small level of beef and a considerable quantity of sheep meat already entering the UK do in fact meet UK food standards? This comes down to environmental control, veterinary checks and the work of local authority food inspectors. We know there is a shortage of veterinary inspectors with many going back to the EU and local authorities and food standard inspections known to be under extreme pressure by constant cuts.

Trade deals are about swings and roundabouts, conceding something to gain elsewhere and that is unquestionably the Truss/Johnson calculation. Improved access and lower tariffs for UK pharmaceutical and automotive products are the other side of the coin in Tory calculations. Fishermen and farmers can make a lot of noise but at the end of the day they do not have a voice to match much bigger industries who are looking for opportunities to replace EU markets that have become increasingly diffcult and expensive due to Brexit red tape.

Rural areas simply do not have enough clout

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have substantial farming interests. Indeed parts of the North and West of England also have high dependency on farming. The concern is farms will need to get bigger and bigger in an attempt to compete wih high volume Australian cattle production. Today farming is a highly industrialised business and further development of this trend is unlikely to see the protection of rural populations, food quality, environmental control or better models of land management and ownership.

Local quality food is an integral part of our visitor offering which is one of our major employers and gradually recovering as we come out of the worst impacts of the pandemic. Farming and land management also provides direct support to agricultural contractors, feed stock suppilers and veterinary services. Making better use of land does not usually involve bigger and bigger holdings. There is growing evidence that the era of small holdings is making a comeback after decades of decline that forced many to give up and sell to larger neighbouring farms.

The growth of interest in organic produce, specialisating in high value crops, demand for local quality produce and the positive experience of famers markets as a welcome alternative to the supermarket shop have long-term potential for Scotland as we seek to exit the UK and create an economy where everyone can earn enough to live in comfort and we end the scourge of child poverty. Just scraping by with barely enough food for sustenance needs is not a model Scotland can continue with as we move to a Northern European model of sustainable population and sustainable living standards reconnected with Europe.

Bringing more food from the far side of the world compared to home production does not fit with our need to address the issues of climate change. Australian agriculture requires vast quantities of water to deal with their hot climate and dry land. Scottish farmers only need to look at our generous skies for ready water supplies.