TO the dismay of its own farmers, post-Brexit Britain has now signed trade deals with the world’s two largest sheepmeat exporting nations – Australia and New Zealand.

The UK Government this week confirmed its deal with New Zealand, and just as the domestic agricultural industry feared, that deal is constructed in a similar way to last June's agreement with Australia, setting up a sliding scale of tariff-free imports which will lead to 'unfettered access' to the UK food market.

NFU Scotland reacted with disappointment, saying that the NZ deal threatened domestic businesses and food security, and offered 'virtually nothing' to Scottish farmers, growers and crofters in return.

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Union president Martin Kennedy said: “Our fears that the process adopted by the UK Government in agreeing the Australia deal would set a dangerous precedent going forward have just been realised. Having now signed off on a similar deal to grant unfettered access to NZ, another major food exporting nation, the cumulative impact of all such deals on farmers and crofters will be substantial.

“This latest deal offers virtually nothing to Scottish farmers and crofters in return but risks undermining our valuable lamb, beef, dairy and horticultural sectors by granting access to large volumes of imported goods. As with the Australian deal, a cap on tariff-free imports is merely a slow journey to allow NZ, a major exporter of food and drink, unfettered access to food and drink UK markets," he said.

“We are ambitious to identify and grasp opportunities to build our industry and wider economy and our reputation for world class produce," stressed Mr Kennedy. "Trade deals could be an enabler of this, but it is going to require investment and collaboration between UK Government and the industry; collaboration which does not exist at present.”

English NFU president Minette Batters echoed these sentiments: “UK farm businesses face significantly higher costs of production than farmers in NZ, and margins are likely to tighten further in the face of rising input costs, higher energy bills and labour shortages. The government is now asking British farmers to go toe-to-toe with some of the most export-orientated farmers in the world, without the serious, long-term and properly funded investment in UK agriculture that can enable us to do so; the sort of strategic investment in farming and exports that the NZ government has made in recent decades."

Ms Batters continued: “There remains an urgent need for government to have a coherent approach across all of its departments to focus on UK farming’s productivity, as well as recognise and remedy the contradictions within current domestic policy, which is still woefully sparse on the detail of how farmers will be supported to become competitive food producers at a time when food security is an increasingly important concern.”

The National Sheep Association said that the NZ deal and its Oz predecessor had created 'an unnecessary risk' for Britain’s sheep farmers. Chief executive, Phil Stocker, commented: “Despite the current global supply and demand dynamics suggesting the UK won’t see a sudden increase of NZ lamb imported, this deal is opening ourselves up to a level of risk that could come and bite us in years to come – and it could pave the way for Britain’s environmental and land management policies to reduce domestic production and then feed ourselves from anywhere across the globe.

“The NZ free trade agreement gives the opportunity for tariff free volumes to rise incrementally from 114,000 tonnes now, to 165,000 tonnes by year 15, and this combined with the Australian agreement of 125,000 tonnes is almost the total volume of lamb consumed here in Britain," noted Mr Stocker. "At the end of this 15-year period trade is expected to be liberalised completely and the only impact this can have is a move to more exports and imports which cannot be good for our carbon footprint or food security, or a winding back of domestic production."

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NSA was not in agreement with the model being proposed by some policymakers that would see UK sheep farms tightening their production window and exporting more, with more imports brought in when product is not available. Mr Stocker concluded: “This to me doesn’t benefit our sheep farming system here in the UK and neither does it win on our aspiration for high standards, climate change targets, or reliable food security.”

Animal welfare charity, the RSPCA raised fears that without a built-in conditional tariff system giving preference to imports produced to high welfare standards, the NZ deal had set a dangerous precedent for future trade agreements. Its chief executive Chris Sherwood said: “We are very concerned to see that the Government has once again failed to build in a mechanism to ensure that any food imports are of an equivalent or higher welfare standard than our own. Failing to draw this line in the sand sends a message to other countries that we are willing to accept cheaper, lower standard imports for the sake of a deal.”