As UK trade negotiators gear up to strike deals with other countries, Farmers Guardian has been analysing the different production standards and methods of potential trading partners.
In this two-part series, we ask what the deals with these countries could mean for producers and consumers.
WITH Brexit day drawing nearer, the Department for International Trade has been ramping up talks with potential trading partners, looking to sign deals as soon as it is legally free to do so.
But while Government may be celebrating its new-found freedom to negotiate such agreements, many believe the plans have exposed a gulf between production standards inside and outside the EU, raising questions about UK farmers’ competitiveness and the potential to harm consumer confidence and limit choice.
Farm groups have been working to impress upon Ministers the need for UK producers to compete on a level playing field with their counterparts elsewhere in the world, without being undermined by cheaper imports produced to lower standards.
Food and farming alliance Sustain recently launched a campaign calling on farmers to lobby their MPs to ensure their voices were being heard by those making the decisions.
Sustain campaign coordinator Vicki Hird said: “We need more voices to raise the level of understanding and concern about unfettered trade deals which do not put high standards and farming futures as a priority.
“MPs should be demanding debates in Parliament, have access to negotiating positions, an ability to influence trade policy and negotiating positions and a veto on trade deals if needed. None of this is currently the case.”
As such, she said Sustain was encouraging farmers and those involved in the farming industry to:
Talks between the UK and Australia are progressing, with the two countries confident of striking a deal as soon as the UK is able to.
However, with hormone growth promoters and antibiotics used in Australian beef production, and beef being one of the key products highlighted for export along with wheat, production standards have been flagged as a potential sticking point.
For Norman Bagley, policy director at the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers, animal welfare and meat quality were important to consider.
“Australia is under prolonged drought and ranch cattle are starving. Some are being destroyed due to a lack of fodder. This has already raised welfare concerns in Australia itself and the problem could get worse because average temperatures are still rising,” he said.
“In terms of quality, beef from the top and hottest part of the country comes from Bos Indicus cattle, which are the only ones able to survive. This beef is known to be tough and automatically excluded from the star-based eating quality measurement system run by Meat Standards Australia. It is not allowed into Australia’s own high-class restaurants or top retail butchers.”
Mr Bagley said beef produced in the bottom two-thirds of the country was mainly Hereford or Aberdeen-Angus. These medium weight carcases, producing smaller, well-marbled cuts, suited the UK market. The chilled product would also mature as it was being shipped over.
However, with China already having a considerable pull on Australian beef, Mr Bagley questioned whether there would be enough for the UK market.
“Ours is the most expensive of the world’s markets, but China is not lagging far behind in price terms and its contract demands will be fierce,” he added.
“So, could the UK get beef it wants when supply is not the bottomless pit it used to be and is the welfare good enough?”
In addition, he said it would be straightforward to authenticate hormone-free beef for the UK from qualifying cattle.
The EU already requires assurances products have not been treated with hormonal growth promotant products. This is governed by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority.
Mr Bagley said antibiotics were rarely used in extensive beef systems. While they were more common in pig and poultry units, ‘antibiotic-free’ labelling was being used to help consumers make more informed choices, a move which has been criticised in the UK
The US is seen as the top target country for a new bilateral trade deal after Brexit.
In 2016, the US was the UK’s largest single bilateral trading partner at 15 per cent of total UK trade and the UK’s largest single export market, with 18 per cent of all UK exports.
On agri-food, the UK currently imports £1.3billion of US food and exports £2.1billion to the US.
Vicki Hird said: “The agri-food sector is likely to be part of any deal, but potentially as a means to gain concessions in other sectors, such as finance.
“Aspects of a deal will include cutting tariffs and non-tariff measures, such as regulations, provision of information, new laws and regulations, and customs training.
“There may be some new market opportunities for UK farmers, such as dairy, sheep and pigmeat, but the US is keen to make gains for its agriculture industry and has made it absolutely clear it will make no deal unless we amend our food standards to allow US imports.”
Antibiotic use is a major stumbling block, with a study by the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics claiming US livestock production involved five times as much use as the UK’s.
Others potential barriers include the use of growth hormones to produce lean beef quicker, such as ractopamine which has been banned in 160 countries due to concerns for human health.
“Pesticide licensing, use and residues rules are also vastly different,” said Ms Hird, pointing out 82 pesticides banned from use in the EU were authorised in the US, including carcinogens, endocrine or hormone disrupting chemicals and developmental toxins.
“Genetic modification [GM] regulations and the labeling of GM foods is a point of significant divergence between the EU and US,” she added.
“Unless organic, almost all US maize, oilseed rape and sugar beet crops are genetically modified and not labelled as such for consumers. Unless EU approvals and labeling requirements are transferred into UK law, food and drink imported from the US could be GM.”
But it is the use of chemical washes which has caused the most outrage – on both sides of the Atlantic.
American Under Secretary for Trade, Ted McKinney was apoplectic in his rebuttal of UK claims about chlorinated chicken at this year’s Oxford Farming Conference and said he was ‘tired’ of answering questions about a practice which had not been used for many years.
However, Richard Griffiths, British Poultry Council (BPC) chief executive, said chlorinated chicken had become parlance for ‘cleaning-up at the end’.
“Food safety has never been the issue,” said Mr Griffiths.
“As has regularly been highlighted, the European Food Safety Authority has also said chlorine dioxide, in controlled concentrations, is safe for food use.
“Rather it is a visceral ‘wrongness’ which has hit home with UK consumers; the suspicion of what happens in the process to require the application of such chemicals to food.”
America’s National Farmers Union hit out at UK farming groups, branding complaints about standards ‘fear-mongering’.
But Mr Griffiths said UK farming’s issue was that ‘US production did not meet our standards and values for meat production’.
For example, on welfare during transport, the UK/EU has a maximum transport time of 12 hours, including space requirements. The US follows a maximum transport time of 28 hours, with no restrictions on the number of birds in crates.
The UK/EU also does not allow meat and bonemeal from other terrestrial species, such as pigs, to be used in poultry feed, but some processed fishmeal is permitted. However, the US does allow meat and bonemeal to be used in poultry feed.
FOOD safety scandals have plagued China in the past. In 2008, melamine was found in domestically produced baby formula, resulting in a huge distrust in dairy.
Stories of fake eggs, diseased pork, recycled oil, mislabelled meat have all hit consumer confidence, leading to calls for industry reform. It has also left China unable to keep up with demand from domestic consumers, who seek food from elsewhere.
This has proved to be big business for the EU and the UK. After the US, China is the second main destination of EU exported food.
Earlier this year Trade Secretary Liam Fox signed a deal to allow the import of UK dairy products to China made with milk from the EU or third countries.
However, the amount of dairy the UK imports from China is minimal, with the majority coming from New Zealand, the EU, Australia, Belarus and Argentina.
EU exit and international trade adviser for the NFU Tori Morgan said it was vital any imports were produced to the same high environmental and animal welfare standards as those in from the UK.
She said: “Government must ensure future trade deals always contain provision to prevent agricultural products and food which does not meet our environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards from entering the country.”
As with countries such as Australia and the US, where deals could come to fruition soon, antibiotic use in China is a key concern.
It is the world’s largest consumer of antibiotics in livestock production and appears to have little or no measures in place to reduce excessive use.
A 2013 study by the Chinese Academy of Sciences showed China consumed 162,000 tonnes of antibiotics, of which about 52 per cent were used on livestock. More than 50,000 tonnes ended up in the water and soil.
The country has also reportedly lost large amounts of agricultural resources due to lack of controls on pollution in the past, and last year announced it was phasing out 12 highly toxic pesticides (on top of an initial 22) in an effort to clean up its soil.
The EU’s trade deal with Canada (CETA) will remove all tariffs on industrial products traded between the EU and Canada and liberalise trade in agricultural products.
On welfare standards there are a number of differences with the UK. Unlike the UK, sow stalls are still permitted. There has been a commitment to phase out sow stall raised meat by 2022, but this is still only an aspiration.
Many antimicrobials that are important to treat humans are freely available for use in animals without veterinary oversight. It is also legally permissible to castrate male piglets where the practice is prohibited in the UK.
Like its neighbour the US, Canada makes use of chlorine washes and uses growth hormones in its beef industry. Ractopamine is still legal in Canada, even though it is currently banned in 160 countries - including the EU - over concerns for human health.
Pig farmers have reportedly reduced their reliance on ractopamine and have won more Chinese business as a result. Canada is the world’s third-largest exporter of pork products, after the European Union and the United States.
National Pig Association senior policy adviser Ed Barker said while there was a pork specific tariff-rate quota (TRQ) under the new CETA agreement, to date, little of the TRQ had been used.
“The Canadians cannot compete with the EU on price whilst maintaining the same standards,” said Mr Barker.
“Unlike our other TRQ allocations, CETA is an EU free trade agreement, which means the UK taking a share of the TRQ will be subject to political negotiation and not a technical process that we have with the rest of the world. This could see us ceding more market access than would otherwise be necessary.”
Canada has also been front footed about the introduction of genetically modified crops, being the fifth largest producer of GM crops in 2015.
In recent years, India has emerged as a major agricultural exporter, becoming the world’s seventh-largest exporter of agricultural products in 2013.
It is becoming known for producing cereals, animal products, fruit and veg and processed food. There are ‘inconsistencies’ in food production standards between the UK and India, but the Indian Government is already urging food producers to meet international standards in order to be competitive.
The UK Accreditation Service has offered to work with India to develop agreed shared standards on food products in order to facilitate trade.
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India is already moving to introduce mandatory labelling of packaged foods which contain genetically modified (GM) ingedients.
NFU combinable crops board chairman Thomas Bradshaw said: “Any imports that undermine our own high UK standards are of significant concern for the industry.
“All our research shows that shoppers want simple and clear labelling so they know where their food has come from. Existing schemes such as Red Tractor provide assurances that British food can be traced back to British farms.”
Vicki Hird, campaign coordinator at farming alliance Sustain, added: “It is worth noting that in a speech in June this year, Trade Secretary Liam Fox specifically referred to the trade opportunities from removing non-tariff barriers to trade in the food and drink sector in India/UK trade deals.
Non-tariff barriers include things like food production regulations, quotes and country of origin rules. It seems likely Dr Fox is also hopeful that India will lift tariffs currently in place on Scottish whisky.”
Producers backed by Brazil’s trade and investment promotion agency Apex Brasil have been working hard to improve the perception of meat following the ‘rotten meat scandal’ of 2017.
The country is keen to do business with both Britain and the EU as it works to grow its exports. In a recent interview with Farmers Guardian, Apex Brasil president Roberto Jaguaribe said lowering crop and livestock production’s environmental footprint was a key focus.
A recent Greenpeace Brazil report showed that up to 80 per cent of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest was a consequence of increased beef production for human consumption.
It said: “Beef is more than twice as expensive to produce in the UK as in Brazil, but the environmental impact of Brazilian beef is nearly three times higher, mainly due to deforestation. Importing more beef from Brazil would increase the environmental footprint of UK food.”
Mr Jaguaribe said 66 per cent of land was ‘natural vegetation’ and farms have been required to set aside 20 per cent of their land in order to comply with the Native Vegetation Law, or ‘Forest Code’ since 2012.
With broadly a third of the sheepmeat consumed in the UK imported and 70 per cent of that coming from New Zealand, ensuring our producers in the home market compete on a level playing field has always been key for the National Sheep Association (NSA).
NSA chief executive Phil Stocker said he was looking for trade agreements which offered protection from meat produced to lower standards on sheep health and welfare and agri-environmental standards, as well as socio economic factors and farm support structures.
Both countries have a land area of about 225,000 square kilometres but the population is vastly different, with 64 million people living in the UK compared to 4m in NZ. The UK has a much higher proportion of urban citizens, many of who like to enjoy the countryside, and that aspect alone brings its own challenges, Mr Stocker said.
“This brings challenges with dogs, gates left open, people getting in the way, and us having to do things that go unseen in NZ.
“The amount of watching eyes and expectations are highly different, our ability to move freely and have large systems is limited. “
Differences in standards include the way farmers deal with casualty stock.
Mr Stocker added: “Our culture is one of taking care and trying to aid animals to recover, often with vet assistance. When animals die we have to pay for disposal via the National Fallen Stock Company or similar – NZ still bury dead animals so pollution levels and costs differ.
"Ceasarians would be an interesting example – we will often use vets to do these ops even though we know it doesn’t make sense financially – we do it because we try to save lives and the NZ quickly cut losses and shoot or cut throats.
“Burying stock also causes disease and ground water problems.
“We also have full electronic identification traceability. NZ producers do not use it at all. We comply with EU regulations – NZ accesses our markets and do not have to comply.”
The halal market was also an interesting example, with all halal lamb being pre-stunned.
“We spend a fortune on explaining the issue , discussing and making the case,” said Mr Stocker.
“Our close connection to the public and our market does carry a responsibility that costs money.