The chairman of the National Farmers’ Union has accused the government of using UK food producers as a ‘pawn’ in post-Brexit trade deals.
Minette Batters, who has led the organization representing British farmers since 2018, said ‘the world’s most prized food market’ had been ‘handed over for nothing’ by ministers, in their rush to sign sweeping free-market deals. trade with Australia. and New Zealand after the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union.
Under the terms of the UK-Australia deal, which was signed in December, Australian beef and lamb farmers will gradually gain access to the UK market over the first 10 years, before all tariffs and quotas on imported meat are removed. Similar arrangements have been agreed for Australian dairy products, with a transition period of five years and eight years for sugar.
“It feels like a betrayal,” Batters said in an interview with the Observer. “My biggest fear was that we would be used as a pawn in trade deals and that’s what happened.”
The country’s food producers said they had been promised by successive environment secretaries, since Michael Gove held the post between 2017 and 2019, that any post-Brexit free trade deal would include permanent protection for national food producers, in the event of a wave of imports.
“These are very bad trade deals for the UK because there are no checks and balances,” she said. “As farmers, we were promised there would be guarantees forever and a day, so if there was a problem, they could do something about it.”
Farmers have long feared that trade deals with food-exporting nations, such as Australia and New Zealand, could lead to an influx of cheaply produced meat, dairy and sugar products arriving on shore. British food, driving down the price of domestically produced food to a higher level. and at a higher cost.
NFU members believe the deals have set a dangerous precedent for talks with much larger food producers such as the United States, Canada and Brazil.
Batters took issue with some ministers’ suggestion that UK farmers need to be more ambitious and export more of their produce. She insisted there would be no demand for British beef and lamb in Australia, which has much larger farms, combined with a smaller population and higher cost of living than UK.
Batters criticized what she described as the “adversarial” approach needed to negotiate with the government. Food producers have argued for more seasonal worker visas to be issued in the first years after Brexit, to ease the transition from reliance on temporary EU workers.
The seasonal worker scheme has been extended by the government until 2024, allowing 30,000 overseas workers to come to the UK to help with fruit, crops and – from this year – plants such as daffodils. The government has withheld the option of increasing the number of visas by 10,000 if necessary, but this remains below the total requested by food producers.
“We’ve had to fight so hard for what we’ve achieved,” Batters said, adding that the industry works in “partnership” with the government of other countries, including Australia and New Zealand, where farmers are included in trade missions.
Westminster ministers are far removed from farmers and rural communities, Batters said.
“Agriculture is the basis of the entire rural economy. In some very fragile parts of the country, if you didn’t have agriculture, the village schools, the local community, the related trades, the local veterinary practice, the auction market, are all put at risk.