With intense speculation surrounding the UK’s position in trade deals, Alex Black analyses what the future might hold for British beef producers.
Increased import quotas for beef could be hugely damaging for the UK industry with more beef expected to be imported from the Mercosur regions in South America and Canada.
The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) warned import quotas of 70,000 tonnes in the Mercosur deal could be ‘fatal’ for the beef sector.
Canada has also been offered a 50,000t tariff rate quota (TRQ) for beef as part of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).
And things could become even more complicated post-Brexit. Last week, six major agricultural exporters, including the US, rejected proposals from the EU and UK to split TRQs on goods between them after Brexit.
UFU president Barclay Bell said the Mercosur proposals were an unwelcome distraction from the Brexit negotiations, which should be the focus for the UK Government and the European Union.
He emphasised the trading bloc could not meet European production standards and already supplied up to 75 per cent of third country beef imports to the EU.
“Farmers in Northern Ireland and across Europe continue to produce beef that complies with leading standards for traceability, food safety, animal health and the environment,” he said.
“Yet the Commission appears determined to undermine all of this by making a trade proposal that would decimate European beef production.
“Offering Mercosur greater access would be a fatal mistake and is something which our elected representatives must oppose.”
Canada has also been offered a 50,000t TRQ for beef as part of the CETA deal.
While the EU has emphasised it has not changed its position on the banning of hormone treated meat, the deal has raised concerns within the industry.
Canada was pushing for as large a quota as possible to make it financially worthwhile for their farmers to set up hormone-free herds to supply the European market.
However, there has been a lot of talk about the prospect of hormone treated beef from the US and Canada potentially being allowed into Britain in any post-Brexit deals.
Andrew Geary, a beef and sheep farmer and Conservative councillor in Milton Keynes, was worried about the prospect of hormone treated beef on British supermarket shelves.
“We have worked incredibly hard. We are producing a quality product. But why do we bother?” he said.
He was also concerned about the prospect of any imports which did not meet British or EU standards not being labelled to allow consumers to make an informed decision.
Scottish Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing has also hit out at Defra for failing to protect iconic Scottish food produce from counterfeiters in new EU trade deals.
As things currently stand, leading products such as Scotch Beef, Scotch Lamb and Scottish Farmed Salmon would receive no protection under EU ‘Geographical Indication’ rules. Other protected products such as Welsh lamb were not included on the list.
NFU Scotland also weighed into the row, pointing out protected food names were an important part of the Scottish brand and demanding they be secured as part of all trade deals.
NFUS chief executive Scott Walker added: “All is not lost, as there will be an opportunity to add to the list when the CETA application is reviewed, but it is this sort of detail which the UK Government needs to pay attention to as it looks to strike its own trade deals after we have left the EU.”
A Defra spokesman told Farmers Guardian the EU Commission was responsible for deciding which products were registered.