Farmers raise concerns as Boris Johnson hails ‘historic’ UK-Australia trade deal

Farmers raise concerns as Boris Johnson hails ‘historic’ UK-Australia trade deal

Deal to include 15-year cap on tariff-free imports amid fears over potential flood of cheaper meat

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has called for more information about protections for UK farmers in a new trade deal with Australia, as it emerged that some tariff-free protection periods will expire in as little as five years.

The NFU and green groups also raised concerns about a lack of detail on animal welfare and environmental safeguards. Downing Street said UK food standards would not be relaxed, but had no details on areas such as higher levels of antibiotics used in Australian meat.

No 10 said the reductions in tariffs would save UK households up to £34m a year – about £1.20 per household. Under the deal, UK nationals under 35 will also be able to travel and work more freely in Australia.

MPs will get a chance to scrutinise the agreement once it is fully completed, expected to be near the end of the year. However, they will not get a vote on whether it comes into force.

Boris Johnson said the deal, the first entirely new post-Brexit trade agreement, “will benefit British farmers”.

Johnson provided no information about how an announced 15-year cap on tariff-free imports, intended to ease concerns about a potential flood of cheaper meat imports, would work. No 10 said more details would come later.

But in its own announcement about the deal, Australia’s trade ministry said tariffs for Australian farming imports into the UK would stop in as little as five years, for dairy products. Beef and lamb tariffs will stop after 10 years, and after eight years for sugar.

For beef and lamb, after tariffs end there will be volume limits on how much of the meats can come into the UK without any charges.

Downing Street said the UK was “absolutely not compromising” its standards on food production and would not allow the import of hormone-treated beef. However, a spokesperson said he did not immediately know if there would be restrictions on antibiotic levels.

Australia uses much higher quantities of antibiotics in farming than Britain, with antibiotics in effect permitted for use as a growth promoter, a practice banned in the UK since 2006.

Australian poultry farmers use 16 times more antibiotics per animal than British poultry farmers, and the Australian pig industry uses three times more antibiotics per animal. The Australian data for beef and lamb production is not detailed enough to make an accurate comparison, which is a problem in its own right, according to the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics.

The overuse of antibiotics also allows farmers to crowd animals together, making meat cheaper to produce but with severe impacts on their welfare. The World Animal Protection Index, which ranks 50 countries according to commitments on protecting animals, gives Australia a score of D, against B for the UK.

The NFU’s president, Minette Batters, said: “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 main elements of the agreement were finalised by Johnson and the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, over dinner at Downing Street on Monday. The agreement in principle is due to be released “in the coming days”.

Speaking alongside Morrison at No 10 on Tuesday, Johnson promised the deal would contain strict rules on animal welfare. “Here, we had to negotiate very hard and I want everybody to understand that this is a sensitive sector for both sides and we’ve got a deal that runs over 15 years and contains the strongest possible provisions for animal welfare.

“But I think it is a good deal and I think it’s one that will benefit British farmers and British consumers as well.”

Morrison told reporters: “Australian standards are very high, and we’re well respected for our standards of animal welfare around the world.”

Greener UK, a coalition of 12 organisations including the National Trust, RSPB, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, said it would “look forward to seeing the safeguards that the UK government is building into the agreement”.

Sarah Williams, from the group, said: “Ministers have continually pledged no compromise on food and environmental standards. It would be pretty self-defeating now if the UK as an aspiring climate leader was to import food produced on deforested land.”

Farming tariffs were the cause of a hiccup in negotiations, with a reported cabinet split over how long any block on tariff-free meat imports should last.

Peter Walker, Fiona Harvey and Lisa O'Carroll

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