Exeter, Devon UK • Feb 21, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Features The UK-Australia trade deal shows the boundaries of sustainable ambitions

The UK-Australia trade deal shows the boundaries of sustainable ambitions

Alina McGregor examines the complexities of the UK's new trade deal with Australia as it relates to foreign and environmental policy.
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October 5, 2021- By Alina McGregor

Alina McGregor examines the complexities of the UK’s new trade deal with Australia as it relates to foreign and environmental policy.

Negotiations for a free trade deal with Australia started in June of 2020, and twelve months later, relatively quickly for this kind of deal, the new changes were announced.

What is striking about this deal is that the benefits for the UK are quite small and difficult to articulate. Australia, as a net exporter of agricultural goods, is right to see the UK as an important market opportunity for a wide range of agricultural goods such as its beef, lamb, dairy, and sugar products. At the moment, presence in the UK market is limited by quotas, whereby only limited quantities can be imported without paying prohibitive tariffs, but under the new deal these quantities are set to increase drastically. Beef, for example, currently has a quota of 3,761 tons, which will be increased to a tariff-free quota of 35,000 tons once the deal is in force, 110,000 tons after ten years and 170,000 after 15 years. Similar increases can be seen in lamb, dairy and sugar quotas.

In the UK however, this is predicted to have serious impacts on our own farmers, amplified by the current changes in policy. Farmer’s payments are in the process of being applied from a basic payment scheme whereby they receive a certain amount for actively farming at least five hectares of land, to a new scheme entitled the Environmental Land Management scheme. In this new scheme, farmers will receive payments based on environmental work they conduct on their land that positively affects soil quality, water quality, air quality, and cultural heritage. This scheme was introduced as the UK Government has declared a global climate emergency, identifying agriculture as an industry which shapes landscapes, biodiversity, and which has economic and political importance.

There is the fundamental question of whether all this is truly worth it

A call for these changes can be traced back to an important report that came out twelve years ago. Jackson, an economist who worked on a government report on the subject of sustainable development in 2009 titled ‘Prosperity Without Growth’ argued that the continued pursuit of exponential economic growth is something that we can’t live with and something we can’t live without. The government has argued that addressing this social logic is the reason for the higher standards farmers are now expected to uphold. In the ‘Environmental Land Management Policy discussion’ document it states that the purpose for these changes is a ‘greener’ approach to farming as part of the UK’s role to protect its natural environment and limit its emissions.

However, this is overshadowed by the fact that climate change does not keep to borders. Our form of unsustainable consumerism hasn’t changed despite the fact that the Government could be freer to move if it is not bound by GDP as a measure of success, and if accomplishments were not still being graded by our number of trade deals. Farmers in the UK are being informed that they will only be financially supported if they conduct themselves in a particular manner – however, the UK is still importing meat from other countries where the same laws are not in place. This creates a paradox in the message we are being sent and the one we are sending to other countries. It signals that old mentalities still reign supreme, instead of a the more radical redefinition for prosperity scientists of all kinds have been pleading for during the last few decades. 

Even if we ignore all the associated moral and environmental questions, there is the fundamental issue of whether all of this is truly worth it for a trifling £500 million– the maximum figure the government’s own analysis projects the deal will be worth to the UK over 15 years, around 0.02% of GDP. This is not to say that the UK is the best performing country in the world or even the EU- in fact research suggests otherwise– however, we do know that undermining our own farmers means potentially exporting our greenhouse gases and our other moral responsibilities to other countries, and will most likely not even make us better off anyway.

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