Debate: Should our trade deal with Australia prioritise British farmers?

Mark Bridgeman and Syed Kamall

May 25, 2021

Mark Bridgeman, President of the Country Land and Business Association, argues YES

In theory, a complete free-for-all on agricultural imports would be a betrayal of British farmers. But in reality it is not helpful for anyone to talk in such terms.

Much of the media debate on the UK-Australian free trade deal has tried to suggest that you are either ‘pro-free trade’ or ‘pro-farmer’. This is a false narrative as the two do not have to be mutually exclusive.

British food producers can look with excitement at selling their world class products to new markets – and Government should be unrelenting in championing their interests in breaking down barriers to growing UK exports.

But we should accept also that it is perfectly normal for certain protections to be in place for key industries. Even the most liberal free trading nations place some restrictions on imports, and to do otherwise would make us a global outlier – making us appear a touch naïve in the process.

Zero tariffs and zero quotas on agricultural imports would not just leave British farmers exposed, it shows the UK Government doesn’t understand one of our biggest strengths.

The UK has some of the highest environmental and animal welfare standards in the world. Emissions from British beef, for example, are half that of the global average. This is true British leadership that we should be proud of. By allowing imports produced to lower standards, not only are we exposing our farmers to unfair competition; we are saying that, ultimately, these standards aren’t so important after all. That’s the wrong message, and one that would be heard loud and clear by other exporting nations with lower standards than our own.

Where Liz Truss is right, is that we of course should be able to strike a high quality deal with Australia, one of our closest partners. But where I think the Department for International Trade has more to do is recognising our strengths as a nation and ensuring there are robust safeguards in place for key industries.

Prof. Syed Kamall, the acting academic and research director at the Institute of Economic Affairs, argues NO

Lower barriers to trade and some producers may well lose out. But bend to the protectionism demanded by a minority and risk betraying households that overwhelmingly benefit from the cheaper prices and increased consumer choice provided by free trade.

The NFU President recently claimed that imports from Australia would leave the British countryside resembling the US dustbowl or the Australian outback. This is plain fearmongering. Australian beef makes up only around 1 per cent of current beef imports, compared to the 90 per cent that comes from EU countries. Even if imports were to increase substantially, the threat to total beef consumption is vastly overstated.

Also, competition encourages businesses to adapt and innovate, so we should have more faith in British farmers’ ability to continue to compete, especially if the UK and Australia agree a 15 year transition, as has been reported.

However, we should also think about the consumers.  There are already shoppers who choose to buy British, and will continue to do so regardless of the availability of Australian beef. But there are also those who struggle with the cost of living, and will benefit from cheaper food and greater choice.

At a time when politicians are talking about levelling up and helping the ‘just about managing’, preventing them from buying cheaper food to make ends meet would be economic madness and morally wrong.


Written by Mark Bridgeman and Syed Kamall

Mark Bridgeman is the President of the Country Land and Business Association. Professor Syed Kamall is acting academic and research director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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