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The leader of Scotland’s farming union believes that rural jobs, prosperity and food standards are on the line in the UK government’s rush for a post-Brexit trade deal with Australia.
And he is not alone. Groups from all corners of the UK and every farming sector have come together to warn of the risks – and call on the government to deliver on its pledge to set up a statutory Trade and Agriculture Commission to scrutinise all trade deals.
As reported in last week’s edition of the Argyllshire Advertiser, NFU Scotland president Martin Kennedy said: ‘Scotland’s beef, dairy, sheep and grain sectors are particularly exposed should a deal be rushed through with Australia that fails to strike the right balance.
‘While some additional market access and tariff liberalisation is expected in this post-Brexit era, all deals must be properly scrutinised and ratified to avoid any risks to the future viability of the farming sector.
‘Rushing through a trade deal without the promised statutory Trade and Agriculture Commission in place prior to the deal being concluded also sets a damaging precedent for other trade deals.’
Food trade and standards expert Ruth Watson, founder of ‘Keep Scotland the Brand’ campaign believes that nothing less than our health is at stake – and that Scotland’s reputation for quality produce could disappear overnight.
Ms Watson told the Argyllshire Advertiser: ‘Liz Truss, Westminster’s Secretary of State for International Trade, is keen to see an agreement signed at the G7 summit, due to be held in Cornwall in the second week of June.
‘While welcomed by some, this is causing both astonishment and consternation in many quarters.
‘The Australian deal is only estimated to be worth 0.01 – 0.02 per cent of GDP to the UK economy over 10 years yet it risks trashing Scottish agriculture and our valuable food and drink sector – Scotland’s largest employer with a global brand worth £15 billion to the Scottish economy.
‘Scotland’s food, animal welfare, and environmental standards are rightly recognised and valued at home and around the world.
‘The worth to our people is harder to quantify – how do you put a price tag on healthy communities?
‘With iconic landscapes, castles, and crofts, Scotland IS the brand – but a reputation is hard earned and easily lost.
‘Faced with competition from industrialised agriculture with lower animal welfare and environmental standards, the risk to our rural communities is enormous.
‘Australian farmers manage vast flocks with methods unfamiliar to our shepherds, including practices which would be banned in this country.
‘And, as crofters on Scotland’s islands face bans on transporting sheep to the Scottish mainland on welfare grounds, vast numbers of Australian livestock are loaded onto supercargo vessels which take them to markets around the world.
‘International trade deals usually take between seven to 12 years to ratify – and for good reason. Complex and detailed agreements often can hang on the placing of a single comma, so teams of lawyers, negotiators and politicians spend many hours poring over the details and nuances in every line.
‘But the Trade Act, which passed into law this April, means trade deals can be signed without being scrutinised or voted on in Westminster.
‘The Agriculture and Internal Market Bills mean politicians in devolved parliaments have no legal right to object, even though convention should have seen powers over agriculture revert to devolved legislatures after Brexit.
‘Canada, Mexico, India and the USA are watching the progress of the Australian deal. All have said they want the same terms as Australia looks likely to enjoy.’
Ruth Watson continued: ‘Proponents for the Australian deal celebrate the prospect of tariff-free, quota-free trade.
‘Not only will Australian produce be allowed unfettered access to UK markets, it now looks as though assurances reiterated just last week will be broken, and beef treated with antibiotics and hormones to promote growth will be included in the deal.
‘By no means is meat the only area of concern.
‘The Pesticide Action Network points out Australian fruit and vegetables contain alarming levels of insecticides and pesticides, with potentially harmful health and environmental impacts.
‘After so many decades in the EU, Scots are used to safe food as standard.
‘We must make a stand for Scottish agriculture now or watch a way of life traded away in deals we did not ask for.’