Tariff liberalisation on sensitive sectors such as beef, lamb and sugar could damage UK production, the NFU warned

The government must come forward with a “comprehensive strategy” to manage the impact of post-Brexit trade deals on UK agriculture as a ”matter of urgency”, farmers have warned.

Tariff liberalisation and significant increases in imports from the world’s biggest agricultural exporters threatened to put “severe pressure on farmgate prices, potentially to levels that cause significant harm to farm businesses”, the NFU said today.

The farming union warned it was now “critical” that the government “showcases its plan to ensure its own domestic farming industry is not damaged by current or future trade deals, to seize the opportunities from our new independent trade policy, and to ensure trade deals the government negotiates do not undermine our country’s own high farming standards and do not reward and incentivise lower standards overseas”.

This should include a rigorous economic assessment of the predicted cumulative impact of free trade agreements on UK agriculture, the NFU said, and a detailed export strategy that “includes match-funding for export promotion and market development, and investment in trade diplomacy overseas”.

The government should also develop a comprehensive strategy to improve the productivity and competitiveness of UK farming, and establish a “clear and explicit process” to review the impact of the UK’s free trade agreements, it added.

The farming union also called for the government to publish its response to the Trade and Agriculture Commission’s March 2021 report, particularly how it intended to pursue a liberalised trade policy alongside its assurances not to compromise the UK’s food standards.

“Looking at the recently announced UK-Australia deal, the tariff-free access being granted to Australian farmers from the outset is incredibly significant,” said NFU president Minette Batters. “We have repeatedly raised our concerns about this level of tariff liberalisation on sensitive sectors, such as beef, lamb and sugar, and the subsequent impact this could have on domestic producers if they are undercut by imports. 

“These are enormous volumes and it’s not clear at all that the safeguards that have been announced will have any effect. For example, the fifth year of the tariff safeguard on lamb would only kick in if Australian producers have already shipped over 150% of the UK’s current import requirement. It’s hard to know if it is British lamb producers or the carrying capacity of our docks that are really being safeguarded here.

“As the final details of how the tariff-rate quotas (TRQs) are administered and how the safeguards will operate are negotiated, I expect the government to engage directly with the UK food and farming industry immediately to ensure these aspects of the deal are as effective as possible. In particular, imports of sensitive products like beef, lamb and sugar under TRQs or subject to safeguards must be managed so that distortion of the domestic market is minimised.”

Looking at the details of the UK-Australia deal, it was “unclear” how the government planned to keep its promise to the nation to protect UK food standards, Batters added.

“It is imperative the government explains how it will work with farmers in the UK, so they can continue to produce the high-quality food the public wants in the face of huge potential volumes of imports produced in very different systems that the public would not put up with if they were adopted by British farmers.

“We recognise the advantages of striking independent trade deals and being able to sell our fantastic British produce abroad, but this must be accompanied by a strategy that details how we will improve our trade diplomacy, including boots on the ground focusing on agri-food exports alongside measures to improve the productivity and competitiveness of UK farming.”