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UK farmers must compete with ‘cruel and unsustainable’ farming practices due to Australia trade deal

Exclusive: Post-Brexit agreement contains ‘no safeguards’ for environmental protections or animal welfare, campaigners warn

Harry Cockburn
Environment Correspondent
Wednesday 30 March 2022 10:44 BST
The UK-Australia trade deal could mean an influx of meat from animals reared with lower welfare standards, conservation groups have warned
The UK-Australia trade deal could mean an influx of meat from animals reared with lower welfare standards, conservation groups have warned (Getty)

The UK-Australia trade deal could allow Australian farmers to flood the market with inferior products including beef and lamb, taking a heavy toll on the environment, undercutting UK farmers, and lowering animal welfare standards, the government has been warned.

The zero-quota, zero-tariff deal agreed with Australia will increase UK farmers’ exposure to “unfair competition with outdated, cruel, and unsustainable farming practices the UK has already moved away from”, according to an analysis by a coalition of organisations.

Despite the government’s objective of “not compromising on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety standards”, the analysis, by groups, including WWF, Compassion in World Farming, Greener UK, RSPCA, Sustain and Which?, said the deal contains “no safeguards” for environmental protections or animal welfare, and “weakens existing safeguards” on food safety.

The concerns about the effect the trade deal could have on farmers, animals and the environment come as the UK pursues other trade deals which campaigners are concerned could allow for similarly flimsy standards. This is because this type of trade agreement removes all tariff and quota barriers, which previously acted to give less preferential treatment to Australian imports than, for example, EU countries.

The removal of those barriers without including a stipulation that Australia produce meat in a certain way means there is effectively now “no safeguard”, even though there wasn’t a specific one in place before.

Preventing this dynamic is a cornerstone of the EU’s single market, with legislation put in place to ensure that all producers are working to the same high standards, and no one country undercutting another.

Without strengthening domestic laws about what kind of food can be imported, the government will drive the expansion of poor farming practices overseas, fuelling the climate and nature crisis while undercutting home-grown food, the campaigning organisations said.

Tanya Steele, chief executive at WWF, said: “With the right policies in place, UK trade could incentivise best-in-class, sustainable food production at home and abroad. By contrast, allowing our trade deal with Australia, a laggard on climate and nature, to be a blueprint for future trade deals would be a backward step for the environment.

“When we do our weekly shop we shouldn’t be presented with products that have contributed to destroying the environment and driving up global temperatures.”

She added: “The UK could raise the bar now by setting national core standards, including environmental standards, for all foods sold here. Setting those standards would also show that the UK government is serious about delivering on its climate and nature promises.”

The government’s doggedness to secure the trade deal with Australia has already resulted in key environmental components being watered down.

Liz Truss, the trade secretary, and Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, decided to “drop both of the climate asks” from the text of the UK-Australia agreement in order to get it “over the line”, according to a leaked email from a senior official late last year.

The government removed a binding section outlining measures to help meet the “Paris Agreement temperature goals” after pressure from the Australian government, which has a weak record on climate action.

But the new analysis suggests the UK government’s use of the deal as a template for future trade would mean the British public were subject to “a patchwork approach to food and farming standards”, with new trade agreements with the CPTPP countries, as well as India, Canada, the USA, and Brazil.

Sue Davies, head of consumer protection and food policy at Which?, said 90 per cent of the public believed the same standards on food should apply to imported goods as those produced domestically.

She said: "The research is clear – people expect the government to maintain food standards and promote environmental protection as part of trade negotiations.

“A recent Which? survey found that nine in 10 UK consumers think the same food safety standards should apply to imported and domestic food. More than eight in 10 believe this should also be the case for animal welfare standards for imported foods, and environmental standards in food production.”

She added: “The Australia trade deal will set an important precedent for future negotiations and risks undermining efforts to make the UK’s food system healthier and more sustainable. The government must honour its commitment to uphold the UK’s high food standards for imported foods in both the short- and longer-term, and deliver on the issues consumers care about.”

UK and Australian animal welfare standards are very different. There are no federal Australian laws on farm animal welfare, and most states have adopted animal welfare standards lower than in the UK in several important areas, according to the WWF.

For example, hot branding is legal in all Australian states and not in the UK. Long-distance transport times without food and water are capped at 48 hours in Australia, compared to 29 hours in the UK, and Defra has proposed a reduction to a maximum of 21 hours.

In lamb production, mulesing, the practice of cutting layers of skin around the lamb’s buttocks to prevent infestation by blowflies, is legal, and routinely administered without anaesthetic in Australia, while it is illegal in the UK.

Chris Sherwood, chief executive at the RSPCA, said the trade deal set a “concerning precedent”, and would undermine UK farmers’ efforts to reduce their impact on the environment.

He said: “We have serious concerns about a free trade deal with Australia and the impact this could have on animal welfare, UK farmers’ livelihoods, and our strides in tackling climate change.

“This sets a concerning precedent now that we are embarking on deals with other countries, all of whom have lower animal welfare standards than we do here. This could mean products being imported and ending up on our shelves which have been produced under what would be illegal standards in the UK.”

He added: “The government recently pledged to improve the lives of farm animals by financially rewarding farming to higher welfare standards, but all of this could be undermined by this deal and future agreements with other countries. There is a real risk that our standards are being sold out for the sake of quick trade deals. We urge the government to protect our standards and maintain our status as global leaders on animal welfare.”

The Department for International Trade (DIT) told The Independent that no single free trade agreement (FTA) would be used as a blueprint for others, and said the government has set up the independent Trade & Agriculture Commission to examine the impact which new FTAs could have on animals and the environment.

The commission is currently considering the UK-Australia trade deal and their advice will be published in due course.

A spokesperson for the DIT said: “This report is simply wrong. The UK-Australia free trade agreement delivers on all of the objectives we set out at the start of negotiations.

“Our FTA with Australia maintains our high standards and does not create any new permissions for imports from Australia.

“The UK’s food standards are overseen by a range of independent agencies including the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland, and we have secured a comprehensive partnership to work with Australia on animal welfare.”

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