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Northern Ireland farmers fear impact of Australia-UK Brexit free trade deal on industry


There are mounting concerns in the agri-food sector over potential food imports from Australia and New Zealand

There are mounting concerns in the agri-food sector over potential food imports from Australia and New Zealand

There are mounting concerns in the agri-food sector over potential food imports from Australia and New Zealand

NORTHERN Ireland agri-food leaders have said that they fear the industry will be undermined as a result of the UK’s free trade agreement with Australia.

Michael Bell, chief executive of the NI Food and Drink Association, told the NI Affairs Committee that the prospect of importing food into the UK from as far away as Australia and New Zealand contradicted other aspects of government policy.

“We have the dilemma of food miles, exporting to the other side of the planet and importing from other side of the planet, given that we have one part of government speaking on that (food miles) and another part of government encouraging global trade.”

Ian Stevenson, head of the Livestock Meat Commission, said the industry was concerned that lower food standards in the rest of the world would also affect Northern Ireland’s reputation for higher standards.

"We don’t want to find ourselves in a race to the bottom with some of the world-leading standards we have.”

Ulster Farmers’ Union president Victor Chestnutt said he believed Australian farmers would be feeling “delight if not disbelief” at the terms of the trade deal, which he said was more favourable to Australia.

The deal was signed in December, while an agreement in principle on a trade deal with New Zealand was reached in October.

Mr Chestnutt said that the arrival of more imports from Australia and New Zealand would mean cheaper food here but that it didn’t bring a long-term benefit.

“Absolutely, it may be good for consumers in the short-term because it will drive down prices

"But in the long term we’ll have less food security and less local provenance for food.”

And he said said that Northern Ireland’s position under the NI Protocol could frustrate the efforts of producers to export overseas.

“The protocol was sold to Northern Ireland as giving us the best of both worlds, but the fact is that our produce cannot be sold on an EU trade deal, so we are limited to UK trade deals,” said Mr Chestnutt.

“In the case of divergence (of regulatory rules between NI and GB), our product will be a slightly different standard than of the (rest of the) UK – does that freeze us out of the UK trade deals or leave us at production price disadvantage with the UK?

“So, we are concerned that we could be left in no man’s land.”

Mr Stevenson said Northern Ireland’s Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots had also written to his UK counterpart George Eustice to express his concerns.

He said there was fear that Northern Ireland’s position as a major supplier to Great Britain would be “displaced” when more, cheaper imports started coming from Australia and New Zealand.

But Australian High Commissioner George Brandis QC said NI business people had been extremely enthusiastic about the deal.

And he said the risks of Australia or New Zealand’s products flooding the market was low.

The deal includes a cap on tariff-free imports for 15 years using tariff rate quotas and other safeguards. Mr Brandis said the arrangements would protect producers here.

"It’s not about one sector but about the benefits and opportunities to all parts of the economy. I understand the sensitivity, and that is why the Australia free trade deal builds in extremely extensive safeguards, provisions that that run for 15 years potentially to protect in particular the beef and sheepmeat sectors.

"But we don’t expect it to be at all likely at all that those safeguards will be triggered. Australia is on the other side of the world.

"We have vast demand for our protein from the countries in our near north markets... We do expect that one of the consequences from the free trade deal will be some elevation in the volume of exports of beef and sheepmeat – from an extremely low base, by the way – from Australia to the UK, but there will be nowhere near enough to threaten any industry.

"In the unlikely event that I’m wrong about that, the safeguard mechanisms will be triggered.”