Farmers and consumers should rightly be alarmed at the imminent signing of a free trade agreement with Australia. The first of the ‘new’ trade deals (as others signed are largely rollovers from what we had within Europe), it could result in major implications for our food system and the environment and also set a precedent for future deals and partnerships.
UK and Australia trade deal
There are rumours that the UK and Australia are keen to publicise a final deal at climate COP26 in Glasgow in November – a fateful timing given the implications for climate and climate justice of further intensification of the food system.
With Anne-Marie Trevelyan MP recently appointed as the new international trade secretary to replace Liz Truss, we’ve seen a few delays on finalising the deal. It is coming however, and with it, opportunities for Australian exporters to vastly increase beef, sugar and other food products, including processed, to the UK.
By offering a zero-tariff, zero-quota deal on beef, sheep meat and sugar we will be undercutting our farmers, putting not only their livelihoods at risk but also endangering plans to reward farmers for delivering public goods such as improving soil health and reversing nature loss.
Whilst there are undoubtedly great Australian farmers, they are permitted to produce food to lower animal welfare, health and environmental standards and can do so at scale and cheaply. UK farmers have made it clear they will not be able to compete with low-standard produce and deliver environmental improvements at the same time.
A backward step for climate change and public health
Concessions have also reportedly been made on removing climate commitments from the text in favour of more general references – this would be a backward step for tackling climate change and reveal a real lack of leadership for the COP26. Beef production is the leading cause of deforestation and land clearing in Australia – leading to greenhouse gas emissions, loss of a critical carbon store as well as biodiversity.
Public health too is at risk. With more sugar, as well as produce with pesticide residues or produced using antibiotics banned as growth promoters in the UK, we urgently need a health impact assessment on the deal that parliamentarians can see before they ratify it.
Antibiotic use per animal in Australian poultry is over 16 times higher than in the UK, while in Australian pigs it is nearly three times higher. Australian grapes can contain 6,000 times the amount of the fungicide iprodione than UK grapes. Iprodione is linked to cancer and is a suspected endocrine disrupter, which means it is capable of interfering with hormone systems and can lead to birth defects and developmental disorders.
Do we really need to create such problems for ourselves?
Full transparency urgently needed
Transparency, oversight and impact assessments are also well overdue on this deal and wider trade policy. The government has not even responded to the recommendations of their own trade and agriculture commission, which reported back in March 2021, nor have they set up the ongoing statutory trade and agriculture commission promised.
Such a deal, agreed and celebrated with a fancy photo op in Glasgow, would go against both what the government has promised (to protect food standards) and its own research showing that protecting food and farming, and farmer livelihoods are the top priorities for the UK public.
Before any deals are signed, we need a strong set of trade policies, full transparency and oversight, and red lines on food and wider risks.