The differences in food and agriculture standards between the United Kingdom and Australia are emerging as issues of concern in the coming free trade deal.
British farmers, environmentalists and consumers fear imports from Australia will compromise the UK’s high animal welfare and food standards.
The differences range from the use of hormones to pesticides and more recently, regulations around farming methods that address climate change.
As the two nations get closer to a deal, Charlotte Smith, who presents BBC program Farming Today, said British farmers were nervous about the impending trade deal.
“That’s because there are more than 20 agricultural chemicals and certain farming practices, which are perfectly acceptable in Australia but are banned here.”
“I think the perception is that there are things that Australian farmers are allowed to do that British farmers are not allowed to do.”
So, what are the differences in food and agriculture standards and will a free trade deal compromise Britain’s food standards or see higher standards imposed on Australian exports?
Hormonal growth promotants (HGPs) are used widely in Australia, while they have been banned in the EU and, therefore the UK since 1998.
Around 40 per cent of cattle in Australia are given HGPs, which are used to accelerate weight gain, according to Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ)
A small implant is placed under the skin on the back of the ear, slowly releasing a low dose over 100 to 200 days.
Studies have shown that cattle treated with HGPs have an increased weight gain of between 10–30 per cent.
The European Commission considers hormone treatment as carcinogenic, posing a risk to human health, but Australian authorities and other countries say the science doesn’t back up that claim.
There are fears that the UK will reverse its standard on the practice in this trade deal and open the door to hormone-reared beef from other countries like the US.
Australia currently exports some meat to the EU, through a system whereby farmers can be EU accredited as hormone-free.
But there are strict guidelines, with the entire farm’s grounds needing to be free of HGP products, treated animals and an annual audit takes place to maintain the status.
The EU and Britain have banned or have stricter standards on a number of pesticides that are commonly used in Australian farming.
For example, neonicotinoids used on Australian crops, including cotton, canola, cereals, sunflower, potato, many vegetable crops and fruits, are banned in the UK and EU because of concerns they cause harm to bees.
Professor Christine Parker from the University of Melbourne, an expert on food regulation, said the EU and the UK had a much more conservative approach to pesticides than Australia.
“They call it the precautionary approach. So, they tend to prohibit pesticides in a precautionary way,” she said.
But she said the Australian regulators took a more ‘risk regulation approach’ and needed a lot more evidence before they prohibited a chemical.
In the UK pesticides are given a maximum licence of 15 years before having to undergo a review process, but in Australia, there is no set time period.
“Our pesticide regulatory authority is not as well resourced as theirs,” Professor Parker said.
“We’ve actually got a whole list of pesticides that we’re supposed to be reviewing that we might be prohibiting, which we haven’t gotten around to looking at properly yet.”
Professor Parker said one of the main differences in animal welfare regulations between the two countries was around intensively farmed livestock.
“In the EU and therefore, in the UK they outlawed battery cages and we haven’t done that yet, here in Australia,” she said.
“And it’s a similar situation with pigs. They’ve got stricter rules.
“Their pigs, the sows, spend less time in these stalls where they’re just totally confined than by the law in the Australian system.”
The UK banned sow stalls in 1999, while the Australian pork industry has undergone a voluntary phasing out of sow stalls in recent years.
Professor Parker said there were plenty of producers in Australia who did things to a higher standard.
“If Britain wanted to require those standards to be met before products could go there, then there would be plenty of producers in Australia who could meet the highest standards that Britain has.”
“It’s just not the legal standard in Australia.”
New agriculture and environmental legislation in the UK following Brexit will introduce a range of incentive measures for farmers to do more for the environment, including planting hedges, cutting pesticides and reducing antibiotic use.
BBC’s Charlotte Smith said while some were positive about the changes, others were concerned about how British farmers would be protected in trade deals.
“I think some farmers are absolutely up for it,” she said.
“Others are saying, ‘Well hang on a minute, who’s going to be growing the food. Are we just going to be relying on imports from Australia, America and the EU while we concentrate on growing hedges and planting trees.'”
Ms Smith said the big fear was that farming was being disregarded in these big trade deals.
“Because these trade deals are much more about technology companies, engineering and other sectors, which are bigger for the UK economy.”
But Professor Parker believed that any trade deal would more likely see a lifting of Australian standards than a lowering of the UK’s.
“I think we all had a bit of an assumption that with Brexit, both Britain and the EU would be negotiating new trade deals with Australia and that the overall impact would be to lift our standards rather than lower their standards,” she said.
“It’s kind of interesting that now the British farmers are having a panic attack and saying that it’s going to drive down their standards.”
National Farmers Federation President Fiona Simson said the reality was any potential increase in Australian beef and sheep meat exports to the United Kingdom as an outcome of an enhanced trade partnership would be dependent on UK demand.
“The NFF continues to support Trade Minister Tehan and the Australian Government in the collaborative and productive negotiations with their UK counterparts as they strive towards securing a free trade agreement that is to the overall benefit of both parties.”
“The aim of any free trade agreement is to provide both parties options. Australian red meat producers would like to have the option to export to the UK if and when the UK needs it.”
Ms Simson said Australia’s red meat industry was leading the world in investing in research and adopting supply chain practices aimed at cutting carbon emissions – with a target to be carbon neutral by 2030.