Of all the topics raised by Gordon constituents with me since my election, few have been sent to me with the sustained volume as those concerned with post-Brexit trade deals and the potential dilution of food and animal welfare standards.
That’s perfectly understandable. The quality of the food we eat is fundamental to us all. For somewhere like Aberdeenshire where many people are perhaps only a generation or so ‘from the land’ themselves, there’s something even more fundamental about the affinity we have with our landscape and the farmers who steward that landscape to put food on our plates.
Brexit, we were told, would provide untold opportunities for our farmers and food producers. However, as the fishing industry has found to its cost, there’s been a yawning gap between the opportunities that were promised and the realities of what has been delivered in practice.
Although the full details of the recent ‘Free Trade Agreement’ with Australia have yet to be revealed, from what we do know it looks like the UK Government is about to do to our farmers much the same as has been done to our seafood sector.
Australia has intensified its agricultural output in a way that Scotland cannot without impacting significantly on our landscape and the ability of the land to support as many people as it does right now. Australia’s red meat industry also has the goal of doubling its sales by 2030, something which can only come through gaining access to UK markets at the expense of domestic producers and standards.
As Dr Richard Mussell, Chief Executive of RSPCA Australia, has pointed out: “animal welfare standards in Australia are basic at best…standards are rarely audited and, unless implemented into law, which few are, they are only voluntary.”
Prior to the signing of the deal, I asked the UK Minister of State for Trade Policy what absolute minimum sanitary and phytosanitary, bio-security and welfare standards the UK Government would insist on in any Australian trade deal to safeguard producers and consumers. All he could say in response was to assert – without foundation - how confident he was that “we will have the ability to protect UK farmers from any unforeseen increases in Australian imports to this country.”
There’s a wider aspect to this, of course, which relates to the trade border that we now have between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. One way to remove nearly all ‘border’ checks which are causing such turmoil right now and reinstate the free-flow of goods would be to maintain current agri-food standards with the same kind of deal that the Swiss currently enjoy with the EU.
Such an outcome would protect Scottish farmers as well as Northern Irish consumers. It would also, of course, end the prospect of standards-lowering deals like the present Australian one being signed in the first place.
This is yet another post-Brexit example where the UK Government would have us believe that it can hold two contradictory positions at once and that the problem lies with those who persist in pointing out the illogicality of their claims. You could say their position is all bull and no beef.