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Op-Ed: Australia – UK trade deal food standards – Good options for Australia

The sometimes slow and occasionally inexcusably illiterate Australian regulatory and sector response has met its inevitable long overdue comeuppance with the UK food standards issues.

Veggie satay: Singapore lab cooks up Asian favourites, minus the meat
Flavour specialists and food scientists in white coats are working with plant extracts at a newly opened facility in Singapore to create vegetarian versions of traditionally meaty dishes that taste like the real thing - Copyright AFP Roslan RAHMAN
Flavour specialists and food scientists in white coats are working with plant extracts at a newly opened facility in Singapore to create vegetarian versions of traditionally meaty dishes that taste like the real thing - Copyright AFP Roslan RAHMAN

The controversial Australia – UK trade deal has hit a few bumps in the form of food standards requirements. Australia is as usual umming and aahing about these issues. The irony is that Australia now has the opportunity to manage some much-muttered-about changes seamlessly and with little fuss.

The reasons for the UK’s problems with Australian food standards are relatively simple – The UK uses EU food standards, a legacy regulatory environment. It’s also a cultural thing in the UK, based on generations of farming and grazing practices. These food standards ban a range of products used in Australian farming.

Australia, however, has a legacy of older food standards, much to the disgust of many Australians. The Australian standards are a result of long practice, embedded in the agricultural sector. They’re often out of date, “there because they’re there” and because they’re a known cost base. It’s not a universal situation. Many Australian growers and graziers have long since adopted organic processes, much more in tune with EU standards.

The community and groups like the RSPCA have also long been waging war on anachronistic practices like battery chickens, with considerable success if also much effort. The fact is that the new generations of growers aren’t stuck in the old methods. Most Australian farmers have upscale degrees, too; the science is no mystery to them.

For example:

  • Hormones – This is a very active subject in Australian agriculture, and has been for a long time. Australian farms do use growth hormones, but definitely not all. One of the key selling points of organic beef is “no hormones”. The move to hormone-free has been happening without any regulatory inputs at all. There are other, less expensive, options, too.
  • Pesticides and herbicides – Big monocultures tend to use heavy-duty pesticides and herbicides as a result of most of a century of this practice. Not all Australian growers, however, use the globally despised pesticides and herbicides. Cost and risk aren’t great incentives. Again, the organic growers lead the way.  
  • Battery chickens – Many public complaints and some truly hideous videos have helped turn around a sloppy, regressive part of the poultry sector quite dramatically. Batteries are held to be “worst practice” by many Australian poultry farmers, for a virtual dictionary of extremely good, irrefutable, reasons. Much the same applies to pig breeding and similar animal welfare issues. The big pushes are for higher standards.

The UK’s food issues need to be properly understood

The UK farming sector is currently undergoing a traumatic, difficult, transition phase after Brexit. Repositioning an entire agricultural sector to new global trade conditions from scratch can be neither easy nor quick.

There’s no reason for this besieged sector to be too rabidly enthusiastic about Australian imports. The UK’s food sector is certainly not likely to endorse lower food standards, when they have to meet higher standards.

The simpler, and for Australian growers, much commercially better, option is to meet those UK standards. There’s been a long sustained push in Australia for higher standards for decades.

The sometimes slow and occasionally inexcusably illiterate Australian regulatory and sector response has met its inevitable long overdue comeuppance with the UK food standards issues. This isn’t “bureaucracy” in any sense. It’s clear commercial need.

There are a few rather blunt points to be made:

The wider trade context

  1. Since when do our farmers want to be at any competitive disadvantage?
  2. When did obvious obsolescence and  decades-long chain-dragging become a Holy Grail of Australian agriculture?
  3. Why is anyone pretending there’s a problem with meeting higher standards? The issues are all about practices long ago phased out by many Australian growers and graziers. There are no “unknowns” to ponder with any required changes.  
  4. Any costs should be absorbed by government allowances to the point of nil net cost to Ag businesses. They can’t be expected to simply wear any costs created by government with no redress.

There’s much more to gain for Australia here. These much-bitched-about but highly necessary changes will add strong commercial values to a huge sector of the Australian economy.

The Ag sector shouldn’t (and most probably won’t) have to be dragged kicking and screaming into this trade deal. It’s a very positive opportunity (god how I distrust that word, but this time it is an opportunity) for a very useful, commercially highly beneficial overhaul.

This needs doing anyway. These old practices are the very last vestiges of the Bad Old Days. Let’s just get on with it.

Written By

Editor-at-Large based in Sydney, Australia.

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