British farmers should stop fearing a UK-Australia trade deal and learn to take competition in their stride

Britain is on the cusp of a trade deal with Australia, set to be finalised by early June. Concerns from farmers, however, have dominated the discourse amid fears over what an influx of cheaper imports could mean for them. It is vital the deal is not derailed and watered down in the face of these fears and Trade Secretary Liz Truss stands firm in her determination to make Britain more global and more competitive. 

Farmers’ are anxious the removal of tariffs for agricultural products will lead to a flood of Australian imports and undercut British produce. There will likely be difficulties but many of these fears will be overblown. The potential good far outweighs the risks. This trade deal would not only help solidify the UK’s post-Brexit place in the world, but would actually benefit British farmers, producers, and consumers alike.

The UK and Australia are long-time partners, similar in culture, international commitments, and rule of law, working closely together on the international stage in many areas. A free-trade deal would make it easier and cheaper to trade goods and services, encourage job creation, economic growth and continue to foster this strong relationship. Australia is also a potentially key gateway for the wider Asia-Pacific region. A deal with Australia could be an important step on the way to joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a trade agreement covering 11 pacific countries, which ministers are eager to join.

The increased competition spurred by a free trade deal with Australia will actually be beneficial to consumers in the UK by making British businesses more efficient as well as reducing prices for goods and services and increasing the variety on offer.

Farmer’s concerns are valid, opening up to free trade can be a painful process, but it is an important one that the UK must embrace in the wake of leaving the European Union. Agriculture has felt this particularly keenly, with the removal of tariffs as the UK negotiates trade deals as well as a phasing out of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The scheme had become a crutch for those able to take advantage of its subsidies (and pushed those who weren’t out of the industry).

These are necessary shifts for British agriculture to adapt to, in the long run it will make the industry more resilient and sustainable. The increased competition from Australian agriculture will force farmers to adapt and evolve, and even push some out of the industry, but this is not new for British farmers, and is not reason enough to hold on to outdated and protectionist policy that benefits a few at the expense of many more.

The UK will not suddenly become flooded by cheap, dangerous beef. Australia is mainly focused on exporting to their closer Asian neighbours, and liberalization will be phased in over years, not in an instant. 

Fiona Simpson, the president of the Australian Farmers Federation, even admitted last week the trade deal was “not such a big opportunity” by virtue of the costs associated with sending beef across to the other side of the world. Australian farmers are largely unsubsidised, Simpson pointed out, and the agriculture industry has to be incredibly competitive to survive. “A stronger relationship with Australia is not in any way going to threaten the viability of your very important Welsh farmers with 60 sheep,” Simpson told the BBC. 

The UK has already committed to ensuring the high standards of hygiene and animal welfare will continue to be upheld for any imports. Environmental impacts are also kept at the forefront of any deal. 

There are, in fact, also huge potential benefits for savvy British farmers to the UK-Australia trade deal, as they would get access to the vast Australian market. Brexit saw many UK farmers hurting and dealing with huge trade disruption as non-tariff barriers sprung up to trade with the European Union, reducing access to EU markets and cutting off a key source of income. Any move to give British farmers more opportunities to sell their produce tariff-free is a step in the right direction.

The UK-Australia free-trade deal means that British farmers will have to face the challenge of competition from Australian agriculture. But there will not be a deluge of un-regulated produce, and they, like the rest of the UK, will also reap the benefits of market access. Ministers must ensure that a robust and comprehensive deal goes forward, one that will help the UK maintain key political and economic relationships, and set the stage for even more beneficial global opportunities.