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NPA Blog - Let's embrace free trade, but only if it's fair

4th Jun 2021 / By Charlie Dewhirst

Charlie Dewhirst discusses the UK-Australia trade talks.

Charlie DewhirstThe UK-Australia trade talks have consumed many column inches in recent weeks as fears increase over what a “free trade” deal may mean for British farming. Cattle and sheep farmers expect a huge influx of imported beef and lamb into the UK if a zero-tariff, zero-quota deal is agreed and fear that their own produce will be undercut by meat produced on a vast scale and at lower costs.

For the pig industry, this specific negotiation is, in theory at least, more of an opportunity than a threat because Australia is an importer of pigmeat and current restrictions prevent us from selling them uncooked pork or genetics due to their very strict Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) regulations. More about that shortly…

What concerns us in the British pig industry is the precedent that will be set by the UK’s deal with Australia. It will be heralded as our first big post-Brexit trade agreement and provide a blueprint for future negotiations with huge pork exporters like the USA and Canada. There is an obvious danger of a cumulative effect as more and more tariff-free meat becomes available to UK importers, inevitably leading to reduced prices.  

It is not the case that we oppose free trade – an accusation some commentators have lazily accused farmers of doing – but we do want to see fair trade. In the UK, where we have some of the highest welfare and standards in the world, the Government is striving to go even further and this could pile more costs onto producers. Is it too much, therefore, to ask that we at least compete on a level playing field with our international trading partners?

However, within this polarised debate over free trade may be a way forward which provides part of the solution. The very strict SPS regulations that currently prevent the pig industry from having greater access to the Australian market may provide the answer to protecting British interests in future trade deals. Tariffs and quotas dominate the headlines but it is SPS rules that determine whether a product can even enter the UK. If we introduce safeguards, similar to SPS rules, that specifically address standards of production we will ensure that imported meat can only come from systems that would be permitted in the UK.

SPS rules are designed to protect against disease or the introduction of foreign invasive species but we could take a bold step and formulate our own version based around welfare and standards. This would allow us to sign zero-tariff deals, safe in the knowledge that our farmers won’t be undercut by imports produced using methods that would be illegal in the UK. Of course, there are concerns that US producers would still operate economies of scale which drive down prices and this may need to be addressed through review mechanisms in any deal.

There are huge potential opportunities for British pork in foreign markets so we should be champions of free trade, as long as it is fair. Our pig industry is rightly proud of its standards and we shouldn’t allow them to be undermined.