Supermarkets will be expected to uphold Britain’s high standards of animal welfare by refusing to buy Australian meat produced to lower standards despite a new trade deal clearing the way, the environment secretary George Eustice has said.
The remarks were made at a keynote speech at this week’s Groundswell event for regenerative farming, where Baroness Rosie Boycott interviewed Eustice on the future of farm subsidies, support for local food, pesticides and other food issues.
The UK and Australia have this month agreed a free trade deal in a move branded as catastrophic for animal welfare and the environment by campaigners and British farmers.
Boycott asked Eustice if he could comment on the deal, and on the rumours that Defra was unhappy with the deal, while it was pushed through by Liz Truss’ Department for Trade (DfT).
Eustice said: “How a collective government works is there’s a discussion in private and a public consensus. Australia has generally got good standards, though some fall some way behind ours, for example in pork or poultry.”
He said Britain will “try and get Australia to end the practice of ‘mulesing’”, a widely condemned practice used on sheep where skin is removed from around the buttocks to prevent a parasitic infection).
“New Zealand abolished the practice to make their lamb more appealing to overseas retailers. I expect what we’ll see is reputable British retailers will not buy Australian meat unless it meets our standards,” Eustice said.
Boycott added: “So you’re leaving it to the retailers to enforce what the government did not?”
“There is a section in the agreement on animal welfare, and we will be encouraging Australia to improve their standards,” Eustice responded.
A question from the floor raised the issue of importing food produced using pesticides that are banned for use in the UK, asking how the government can “justify” the imports.
Australia uses thousands of pesticides that are banned in the UK, while other new trade deals with regions or countries that also have more relaxed rules around chemicals, such as the US and Brazil, are now likely to see the deal as a precedent.
Eustice acknowledged it was a “legitimate point”, before adding: “As we open up new markets around the world, we need to be conscious of places where they’re not doing their bit on climate or nature.”
He said the UK is looking at a carbon border tax, without confirming any details about how this would work in practice.
New farming subsidies
Elsewhere in his speech, Eustice unveiled details about the UK’s future farming subsidy scheme, which has been in development since the Brexit vote and began a seven-year transition period this year.
The Sustainable Farming Incentive, which is a transition scheme bridging the EU subsidies and the UK’s new scheme, will open universally from next year.
It will comprise three strands including: a whole farm approach with a holistic focus, likely to start on soil but moving onto hedges and pest management; a local nature recovery strand, which will replace the Countryside Stewardship scheme and include more collaborative elements to create things like wildlife corridors; landscape recovery, to include things like new woodland and rewetting peatlands.
Farmers have raised concerns about the lack of detail about the new schemes, including whether existing certified schemes such as organic farmers will be recognised and fairly compensated for the work they do farming for wildlife, nature and the soil.
Elsewhere at Groundswell, a gathering of over 2,000 regenerative farmers, talks focused on how to find new routes to market for sustainably-produced food, how to transform farming into a new era of low carbon and biodiversity restoration, and practical workshops on anything from composting, no-till and rotating livestock regularly to improve soil fertility.
Regenerative farming is a relatively new term used to describe farming that primarily concentrates on improving the soil, as the basis for reducing pesticides, fertiliser and restoring biodiversity. Organic is a certified system of farming that bans artificial pesticides and fertilisers and is designed around many of the same principles.
In the UK, regenerative farming is primarily a farmer-led movement to share knowledge and improve fertility on farms without inputs, while in the US there is a move to certify the system and the involvement of bigger brands and industrial food suppliers, which is leading to fears of greenwashing.
For a full report from the Groundswell event and all the latest on regenerative farming, see the next print issue of Wicked Leeks, out from 2 August.