The UK and Australia have announced the broad outlines of a free trade deal which would eliminate tariffs on a wide range of goods.
British-made cars, Scotch whisky, biscuits and ceramics will be cheaper to sell under the pact, while Australian producers are set to benefit from boosted exports of lamb and wine, the government said.
The agreement is the first negotiated from scratch since Brexit, as earlier deals with countries including Japan and Canada were built on existing agreements struck by the EU.
However the deal has sparked controversy, both among British farmers who fear they could be undercut by cheap imports, and by environmental campaigners who warn that it opens the door to “destructive mega farms” and “biodiversity chaos”.
Why are activists so concerned?
Climate campaigners have warned that the deal would not only give tacit approval to controversial farming practices in Australia, but would also “lower the bar” for future trade deals the UK is seeking to strike.
Among their list of concerns is that Australian farmers are permitted to use pesticides, which are banned in the UK, including neonicotinoids, which harm pollinators including bees.
They also point to the use of antibiotics to treat infections, particularly for animals which are intensively farmed, and the approved practice of “mulesing” – a painful procedure that involves cutting flaps of skin from around a lamb’s tail to produce stretched scar tissue which holds less moisture and faeces and attracts fewer flies. Australian farmers may also use growth hormones in cattle.
In addition, activists are worried about the impact on deforestation and animal loss in Australia. A report from the Wilderness Society – a US-based conservation group – warned in 2019 that beef production was the leading cause of deforestation and land clearing in Australia, with analysis suggesting that 73 per cent of all deforestation and land clearing in the state Queensland was linked to the practice.
“Due to high land clearing rates in the state of Queensland, Australia is now a designated global deforestation hotspot. This is driving significant biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions and contributing to poor water quality running into the Great Barrier Reef,” the research said.
The Wilderness Society also stated that in the last five years more than 1 million hectares of forest clearance has been attributed to cattle farming, and Australia now has the unenviable title as world leader for mammal extinctions.
Greenpeace said most of the deforestation was due to weak legislation and rollback of protection in Australia making the practice technically ‘legal’. The organisation claimed this also meant the UK’s current proposed new due diligence law that only tackles ‘illegal’ deforestation would not stop beef from these farms entering the UK.
Commenting on the announcement, Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist, said: “Despite green rhetoric at the G7 Boris Johnson has just given a massive vote of confidence to exactly the kind of intensive, destructive mega farms that the UK should be trying to move away from.
“He is aligning Britain with a country that’s way behind on climate action, and one that completely ignores its beef industry driving further climate and biodiversity chaos through the mass clearance of forests ,and its routine use of hormones and pesticides.
“It has lowered the bar significantly for other countries looking for trade deals – Brazil being of most concern with its similarly destructive farming methods driving mass deforestation at the expense of people, wildlife and the climate. Britain will be expected to accept the same laissez-faire approach to food and environment standards that this deal allows.”
Tanya Steele, CEO of WWF UK, said the agreement would “drive a coach and horses through efforts to put UK farming on a sustainable footing”.
“If the UK government is serious about global environmental leadership, then it must get serious about sustainable farming – not just here in the UK, but across every country we import food from,” she wrote in a comment piece for The Independent.
“Unfettered access to UK markets should reward those who meet our standards on climate, nature and animal welfare – and should not prioritise outdated farming systems, like Australia’s, which are fuelling the climate and nature crisis.”
She said the trade deal with Australia “sets a dangerous precedent” which could mean “opening the UK market to agricultural imports that have contributed to widespread deforestation in the Amazon”, adding: “There is no economic benefit to be gained from trading our planet away.”
What has the UK government said?
Boris Johnson has called the proposed trade deal an example of “global Britain at its best” and said the agreement “opens fantastic opportunities for British businesses and consumers”.
The details are yet to be unveiled however there was no mention of environmental or animal rights safeguards and only a single reference to climate change in the government announcement.
“The leaders reaffirmed the enduring partnership between the UK and Australia during their discussion and agreed to work closely together on defence, technology collaboration and tackling climate change – including through a future Clean Tech Partnership,” the statement said.
Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, claimed that how Australian farmers operated had been “mischaracterised” during the discussion around the trade deal.
“Australia is a friend and ally,” he told Sky News on Tuesday. “I think that there have been one or two points that have been made about Australia during the course of this debate that mischaracterise how Australian farmers operate and the opportunities also for UK farmers.”
Trade secretary Liz Truss said previously that no new trade deal would permit the import of hormone-treated beef.
A spokesperson at the Department for International Trade told The Independent the government was “not compromising our high animal welfare and food safety standards”.
The spokesperson added: “It is a fundamentally liberalising agreement that removes tariffs on all British goods, opens new opportunities for our services providers and tech firms, and makes it easier for our people to travel and work together.
“A final agreement in principle will be published in the coming days with the full detail.”