Irish farmers concerned about UK proposed trade deal with Australia

“Any competitor is a threat, and it’s a big threat,” says Tommy Moyles, as he tends his herd of 130 premium cattle on heights overlooking the Atlantic Ocean outside of Clonakilty , west of Cork.

The fifth-generation farmer, whose father came to Ardfield from North Mayo, where the family had been farming as early as the 1700s, knows how great a UK-Australian free trade deal could be. a threat to Irish families like hers.

Thanks to a scholarship a few years ago, the 40-year-old spent time in Queensland, Western Australia, Victoria and New South Wales to observe how Australians transformed their beef industry. .

The size of the cattle ranches there is “out of the ordinary,” he says, while the costs are lower than in Ireland because the climate hardly requires sheds and other costs that eat away at the expense of one. average Irish farmer.

But, perhaps more worryingly, Australians also have a card up their sleeve when targeting new markets, like the UK, which buys nearly half of all beef exported from Ireland.

During the 1990s, the Australian industry came together – “they’re collaborative, not fragmented like us” – and developed a system of standards, scientifically classifying their beef based on taste and quality.

“It makes the steak taste great,” Moyles says, “and it worked out pretty well for them.”

With tariff-free, quota-free access to the UK, Australians will do their best by shipping premium cups to UK supermarkets and restaurants.

“If they get a foothold, we play catch-up. If they can stand up for the quality of their steak – and we can’t – that’s a risk for me, ”he says.

The UK spends € 1 billion a year buying Irish beef, according to figures from the Central Statistics Office.

Over 4,000 tonnes of beef are shipped from Ireland to Great Britain every week. In contrast, the UK only consumes 30 tonnes of Australian beef per week.

Multiplied by ten

The Australian Agricultural Company (AACo), the country’s largest beef exporter, says a free trade deal alone could increase its sales to the UK tenfold.

Tim Cullinan, chairman of the Irish Farmers Association (IFA), described the looming trade deal as the threats they have signaled since the day the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016.

“It is our most valuable market, in terms of volume and price,” he said.

“Any loss of storage space would be very damaging for our breeders, who are in a low income sector.”

There are around 80,000 cattle farms in Ireland, which produce around one-fifth of the state’s total food and drink exports.

Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan has taken steps to reassure UK farmers that they have nothing to fear from a deal.

However, this is rejected by the Irish Farmers Association: “Our experience is that when people say you have nothing to fear then you have something to fear,” says one of its officials.

“We can’t just go somewhere else, we can’t just find another market in the morning. It is our closest market, we have strong cultural and linguistic links. The population is 15 times larger than ours and they are paying a high price for it.

“It’s not just about pulling the rug, it’s breaking down the whole foundation under the direction of someone who works in beef production here. This will mean that farmers are going to the wall, ”he continued.

The impact would not only be felt behind the farm, but also in meat processing plants, service jobs and other industries supported by the rural economy.

Meat Industry Ireland, which represents major processors including APB, Dawn and Kepak, is concerned that a deal between the UK and Australia could serve as a model for other trade deals.

Increased competition

Almost all of them are said to be major beef exporting countries like the United States, New Zealand and the countries of the South American Mercosur trade bloc, all of which bring greater competition to Ireland.

It’s a concern shared by Victor Chestnutt, a cattle farmer on the north Antrim coast and chairman of the Ulster Farmers Union, who warns the deals could destroy the rural economy of the North.

“This is the first major post-Brexit trade deal for the UK,” he says.

“It will be seen as a precedent for others to follow. All other countries will now seek a zero tariff, a zero quota.

Chesnutt backed Brexit because he “had just had enough of European over-regulation and bureaucracy,” but now fears London is “rushing” into its first major trade deal.

“I urge them to be careful. They are not experienced in this area. We have to make our way rather than dive in, ”he said.

While Northern Ireland’s protocol to the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement would protect the North from Australian imports, Britain remains the “main market” for its beef sales.

These are the concerns, the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee of Stormont Assembly is seeking “urgent” updates from Belfast and London.

Declan McAleer, MP for Sinn Féin West Tyrone, chairman of the committee, said about half of all food produced in the North goes to Britain, worth £ 3bn and 100,000 jobs.

“The prospect of a tariff-free trade deal between Australia and the UK would displace our share of the UK market because our farmers simply couldn’t compete with such a vast food-producing continent,” he says. .

“Unfortunately, none of this comes as a surprise and is in fact the implementation of a cheap food policy from the long-standing Tories, made possible by a Brexit move that the Irish people did not support but which will pay a heavy price for it. “

“There will remain a niche for local traceable products, but the choice of mass consumers will most likely depend on price. Our farmers will be overpriced in the market, ”continues McAleer.

Back in West Cork, Moyles says the final impact on the bottom line will depend on “which end of the market the Australians pursue”.

“It should focus the minds here. We need to re-evaluate and improve, ”he says, signaling a new standard based on Bord Bia that will highlight Irish beef as grass-fed.

“It’s a challenge, but the free trade agreement will not prevent me from sleeping at night,” he insists.

“Australians have a few advantages. But so are we.

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