Irish farmers concerned over UK’s proposed trade deal with Australia

Size of Australian cattle ranches ‘off the charts’, with lower costs because of climate

Tommy Moyles, Ardfield, Clonakilty, Co Cork. Photograph: DOL

Tommy Moyles, Ardfield, Clonakilty, Co Cork. Photograph: DOL

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“Any competitor is a threat, and this is a big one,” says Tommy Moyles, as he tends his 130-strong herd of premium beef cattle on high ground overlooking the Atlantic Ocean outside Clonakilty, in west Cork.

The fifth-generation farmer, whose father came to Ardfield from north Mayo where the family farmed as far back as the 1700s, knows how much of a threat a UK free trade deal with Australia could be to Irish families like his.

On a scholarship some years ago, the 40-year-old spent time in Queensland, Western Australia, Victoria and New South Wales watching how Australians have transformed its beef industry.

The size of cattle ranches there is “off the charts”, he says, while costs are lower than in Ireland because the climate offers little need for sheds and other costs that eat into the outgoings of an average Irish farmer.

But, perhaps more worryingly, the 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 got together – “they’re collaborative, not fragmented like us” – and developed a standards system, scientifically grading their beef based on taste and quality.

“It ranks how good the steak is going to taste,” says Moyles, “and it has done pretty well for them.”

With tariff-free, quota-free access to the UK, the Australians will put their best foot forward, shipping highest-end cuts for British supermarkets and restaurants.

“If they get a foothold, we are playing catch up. If they can stand over the quality of their steak – and we can’t – that to me is a risk,” he says.

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

More than 4,000 tonnes of beef is shipped from Ireland to Britain weekly. By contrast, the UK takes in just 30 tonnes of Australian beef a week.

Ten-fold increase

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

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

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

“Any loss of shelf space would be very damaging for our livestock farmers, who are in a low-income sector.”

There are about 80,000 beef farms in Ireland, producing around a fifth of the State’s entire food and drinks exports.

Australia’s trade minister Dan Tehan has moved to reassure British farmers they have nothing to fear from a deal.

However, this is dismissed by the Irish Farmers’ Association: “Our experience is 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 in the morning just find another market. It’s our nearest market, we have strong cultural and language ties. The population is 15 times greater than ours and they pay a strong price.

“This is not just pulling the rug, it is collapsing the entire foundation from under someone working in beef production here. It will mean farmers going to the wall,” he went on.

The impact would not just be felt behind the farm gate, but in meat processing plants, services jobs and other industries supported by the rural economy, too.

Meat Industry Ireland, which represents the major processors, including APB, Dawn and Kepak, is concerned a UK-Australia deal could be a template for other trade deals .

Greater competition

Nearly all of them would be major beef-exporting countries like the US, New Zealand and the countries of the South American trade bloc Mercosur, all bringing greater competition for Ireland.

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

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

“It will be seen as a precedent for others that follow. Every other country will now be looking for zero-tariff, zero quota.

Chesnutt supported Brexit because he “was just fed up with European over-regulation and bureaucracy”, but he now fears that London is “rushing headlong” into its first major trade deal.

“I would urge them to go careful. They are not experienced in this. We need to ease our way in, rather than dive in,” he says.

While the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit withdrawal agreement would protect the North from Australian imports, Britain remains the “main market” for its beef sales.

Such are the concerns, Stormont Assembly’s committee for agriculture, environment and rural affairs is seeking “urgent” updates from both Belfast and London.

Sinn Féin West Tyrone MLA Declan McAleer, chair of the committee, said around half of all the food produced in the North goes to Britain, worth £3 billion and underpinning 100,000 jobs.

“The prospect of a tariff-free, Australian-UK trade deal would displace our share of the British market because our farmers simply could not compete with such a huge food producing continent,” he says.

“Sadly, none of this is a surprise and is in fact the outworking of a long standing Tory cheap food policy, made possible by a Brexit decision that the people of Ireland did not support but who will pay a heavy price for”.

“There will remain a niche for local, traceable produce but mass consumer choice will most likely be driven by price. Our farmers will be out priced from the market,” McAleer goes on.

Back in West Cork, Moyles says the final outcome impact will depend on “what end of the market the Australians will chase”.

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

“It’s a challenge but the free trade deal won’t be keeping me up at night,” he insists.

“The Australians have a few advantages. But so do we.”

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