“Recent press has been largely negative regarding the Australian trade deal, although as yet we still don’t really have much idea of the fine details,” said National Beef Association (NBA) chief executive Neil Shand.
But he said that the trade deal was happening whether farmers liked it or not.
“Rather than expend our energy fighting the inevitable, we should ensure that safeguards are in place to maintain standards in production. We must be realistic and accept that we need to import beef – and, of course, we do also export a reasonable quantity too.”
However Shand said the deal opened a much bigger debate on how to solve the dilemmas in beef production in the UK.
“Noises from a couple of the UK devolved governments are appearing to imply that they want to - or will - reduce domestic production to help them reach their carbon targets in their own countries.”
He said that while these rumours remained unconfirmed, they were ideas ‘on the table’. But he knocked any notion that reducing production would reduce overall consumption, adding that Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all exported 60-70 per cent of their beef production to England.
“Any reduction in domestic production will mean that the beef shortfall has to be covered elsewhere, opening the door for more imports from the likes of Australia, and the corresponding increase in carbon that transportation from the other side of the world involves.”
He said this meant that the ‘carbon-friendly’ devolved governments would just be transferring their emissions elsewhere. “And this local threat may be far more damaging to long-term UK beef production than the Australian deal,” he warned.
The devolved governments who were condemning Westminster over the trade deal, he advised, should get their own house – ‘and mathematicians’ - in order first.
“Decreasing domestic production will open doors for all imports, not just the Australians. It currently takes a national herd of nearly 1.4 million suckler cows to produce our import requirements.
“It is imperative that our devolved governments realise the need for a UK approach, not an individual one. Alternatively, we will be faced with the ludicrous scenario where we produce less, high-welfare beef in the UK to meet dubious carbon targets, but ship in lower standard product from the other side of the world.”
Shand said that it was imperative to maintain the support for the recognition that imports from Australia or elsewhere were produced to a minimum of UK welfare and production standards, and that lower quality imports were not used to push our home-grown prices backwards.
“We currently have the support of the Great British public, and keeping this backing is of major importance.”
Meanwhile, the RSPCA has warned the deal could set a damaging precedent for agreements with other countries resulting in a race to the bottom - with imports of beef from enormous feed-lots and chlorine-washed chickens raised under filthy conditions.