Featured Image: SS Dunedin, fitted with a coal powered refrigeration unit, delivered the first shipment of meat from New Zealand to the UK in 1882.
It might surprise George Eustice to learn that the F in DEFRA stands for Food, not farmers. It would appear Eustice has never understood his brief, even though he bragged in a Spectator puff-piece last week that he had served as a Minister in the department for nine years, finishing as the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from February 2020 to September 2022. Now on the backbenches, Eustice is dissing the two trade deals Boris Johnson’s government negotiated for the UK with Australia and New Zealand.
As a Minister for food, Eustice should have been rejoicing that new trade deals with two large food exporters would arrive, like the cavalry in an old western, just in time to relieve Britain’s embattled citizens fighting against the cost-of-living crisis. But no, Eustice’s only concern is for the profits of UK beef farmers, and dare I suggest, for retaining his seat in Parliament.
Eustice claimed in this obvious election broadcast, (There was no push back from the interviewer nor it would appear any fact checking by the publisher), that Liz Truss (as Trade Secretary) had ‘shattered’ the UK’s negotiating position by rushing the deal, and that the UK should have demanded that Australia lift its ban on UK beef imports. Is this the same UK that imports about 30% of the beef it consumes and the same Australia which is the world’s second largest chilled beef exporter and third largest frozen beef exporter? If so, I fail to see what the UK’s negotiating position was, other than claiming: if you don’t allow us to sell you beef that we don’t have, we will refuse to buy your beef that we need and instead continue to pay excessive prices for EU beef. It doesn’t sound like a strong negotiating position to me. Especially as the UK’s primary export industries, that will do very well out of this trade deal, are all manufacturing industries, not agricultural.
Eustice also claimed that Australian hormone-treated beef would undercut UK beef, even though he should know, as a former Defra Minister, that it is against UK law to import hormone treated beef from anywhere, including from Australia, and the trade deals don’t change this restriction. Eustice should also know that as Australia’s largest beef market is China, which also bans hormone-treated beef imports, 60% of Australian beef is in fact produced without the use of additional hormones. Where were the Spectator’s fact checkers? Here is a link to the Trade deal, if you can find the section that allows in hormone treated beef, please let me know.
According to Eustice, he, Michael Gove and Zac Goldsmith fought to maintain animal welfare and farming standards in the trade deal. He may not know that Australian cattle spend their lives outdoors, eating grass unless they are to be sold as grain-fed, in which case they will be fed grains but will still live outside, so Australia doesn’t need rules about the amount of light an animals must get each day. Unlike the UK and the EU where cattle spend a portion of each year, as well as while they are being ‘finished’ for market, living in a shed with limited light and limited movement. So, I am not sure that UK animal welfare is something to brag about. But hey, Eustice is a former Press Officer, not a farmer as it turns out, so we shouldn’t expect him to spoil a good story with any facts.
But here are some facts that Eustice needs to know.
The UK population as at Dec 2020 was 67,081,000 according to the ONS. Since that time the Home Office has handed out 1.1 million visas for study, work or family reunion. Admittedly some people have left, so net immigration to year end June 2022 was ‘only’ 504,000, plus a net 140,000 in the first half of 2021. Add to this tourists, now back in full force after Covid restrictions, as well as the men in rubber dinghies arriving on a daily basis, and I calculate that we now need to feed close to 68 million people every day. In 1973, when the UK joined the EEC, the UK population was 56 million, about 12 million fewer people than today and even then, the UK imported 102,100 tonnes of beef and 26,371 tonnes of sheepmeat from Australia. So why would Eustice have a problem with Australian beef and sheep imports now?
Eustice’s old Department keeps and publishes each year records of all agricultural production, imports and exports in the UK, as well as information on farm size, farm employment and the total value of agriculture to the UK economy, which is about £10.3 billion or 0.54% of total UK Gross Value Added. So it’s not a big part of the UK economy. The entire agri-food sector is larger but that includes restaurants and take aways, food manufacturing, food wholesaling and food retailing – all of these areas rely on imported raw materials as well as some locally produced goods. If you are making a Christmas cake this week: the dried fruit wasn’t produced in the UK – even in a heated greenhouse; nor where the almonds or the brandy. There is even a high probability that the flour was imported from Canada or Denmark or France.
Unfortunately, it looks like Eustice has never read these Defra publications. Instead, he prefers to perpetuate the myth that UK farmers could produce more food if only they were given the chance. Eustice seems to be oblivious to the UK climate, soil type, or even farmland availability. Eustice obviously puts the interests of the 467,000 Brits involved in farming, a number that includes unpaid family labour as well as paid full-time and part-time labourers, way above the interests of the other 67.5 million people living in the UK trying to afford food.
A brief history of recent UK Beef production
The UK produced 1.14 million tonnes of beef in 1985 of which just under 200,000 tonnes was exported. UK production was similar in 1984, at 1.14 million tonnes but only 1.1 million tonnes in 1980. Production was also quite high in 1995 and still over 1 million tonnes. But that is where UK beef nirvana ends. The high point for UK exports was also in 1995 at 334,000 tonnes, strangely midway through the UK’s BSE crisis. During the BSE crisis and Labour’s reign in government, beef production fell to 645,000 tonnes in 2001 and exports fell to a mere 8,000 tonnes.
Source Defra Meat production, Table 8.1
Over the most recent decade, UK beef production has stabilised at around 900,000 tonnes, oscillating between 840,000 and 935,000 tonnes, with total exports remaining between 130,000 and 170,000 tonnes. These are generally cuts of beef that the UK population doesn’t eat. On the bright side, exports to non-EU countries have been steadily increasing, albeit from a mere 6,000 tonnes in 2011 to 35,000 in 2021. This has a lot to do with the UK’s trade department negotiating with both Japan and the US to lift the ban on UK beef imports imposed during the BSE crisis: the same Trade department that Eustice is now attacking. But one important reason why UK beef exports are so small is the present size of the UK population, which has outgrown the capacity of the UK’s beef producers.
Source Defra Meat production, Table 8.1
In 1985, the UK’s net beef production (total production after exports) was almost 940 million kilograms, which meant that with a UK population of only 56.5 million people, each person was able to consume 16.6 kilos of UK beef during the year. This doesn’t sound like much. But the same calculation for 2021 left the UK population with only 11 kilos of UK beef each for the whole year. How do we survive? By importing beef. And not just beef, we also import lamb and pork and even chicken, and have been doing so for 200 years.
Source ONS and Defra
A brief history of UK imported meat.
This year New Zealand celebrated the 140th anniversary of lamb exports to the UK. The arrival of the SS Dunedin in London in 1882 with the first shipment of frozen meat was greeted with joy by a UK population suffering food shortages. The Dunedin delivered 4,331 mutton carcasses, 598 lamb carcasses, 22 pig carcasses, 250 kegs of butter and 2,226 sheep’s tongues. Only one carcass was spoiled. The Times called it a triumph as did Queen Victoria, who met the boat at the wharf and was given a sheep’s carcass as a present. British farmers were probably less impressed, but the UK population was now able to eat lamb all year round, and as the price of sheepmeat fell, some people were able to eat sheep meat more often or even at all. Such imports were a major factor in the sharp increase in working-class living standards in the later 19th century.
In 1985, UK net beef production made up about 82% of total UK beef consumption. This has gradually fallen to around 70% now. In 1985 a quarter of all UK beef imports came from outside the EU. In 1996 that number had risen to 44%. But since 2015, non-EU beef imports have fallen below 10% of all UK beef imports, and in 2020 they made up only 2% of UK imported beef even though the world’s largest beef exporters are all non-EU countries – Brazil, US, Australia, India, Argentina. At the same time total UK beef imports rose from 210,000 tonnes in 1985 to a high of 365,000 in 2018. So, despite Eustice’s protestations about Australia, the UK has become more and more dependant on EU – and specifically Irish – beef. Beef imports were lower in 2020 and 2021, because imports are predominately used in restaurants which were closed during Covid lockdowns.
But Eustice does not appear to be interested in the needs of the British population. He is happy that Tesco’s is charging £45/kg for a roast and £35/kg for an Aberdeen Angus ribeye. Not to be outdone, Waitrose is selling Dry Aged Hereford Fillet steak for £66/kg and French trimmed rack of lamb for £42/kg. Yet Eustice claims that the UK was too generous in allowing Australian beef and sheep farmers access to UK markets.
The greatest irony is that the UK-Australia trade deal does not give unlimited access to UK markets. The Agreement limits access in almost any product that Australia actually exports, with the exception of wine. So, government ministers get a photo-op shaking hands and claim that the trade deal eliminates about 95% of all tariffs, without mentioning that most of the tariffs eliminated immediately are on products that Australia doesn’t produce, or that the UK doesn’t import. I know this because as a member of the Trade and Agriculture Commission it is my job to go through the trade deals, tariff line by tariff line, to estimate where the UK may see an increase in agricultural imports which could have been produced in a manner that is illegal in the UK.
In the case of beef from Australia, the trade deal retains the UK’s eye wateringly high tariffs on beef of 12% plus up to £2.54/kg, even though the UK is a net importer of beef. The deal only gradually increases the amount of tariff-free beef imports over 15 years. In the first year of the trade deal (potentially 2023), only 35,000 tonnes of Australian beef may be imported tariff free. That works out at about 500 grams or one large steak of Australian beef per person for the year. The amount of tariff-free beef will increase to a maximum of 110,000 tonnes in 10 years’ time (2033); after that date product specific safeguards start, which limit tariff free beef imports to a maximum of 170,000 tonnes by 2037. If the population continues to grow at the present rate, by 2037 we may each get 2.25 kilos of tariff-free beef from this trade deal for the year. That is if we haven’t all died or emigrated by then. Consumers should note that Eustice does take credit for securing this delay in importing meat from one of the world’s largest meat exporters, even though the UK is presently importing over 300,000 tonnes of beef each year. Think about that next time you’re out shopping.
Eustice also claimed that Jacob Rees-Mog and Liz Truss believe that the UK should ‘almost’ unilaterally remove tariffs. That ‘almost’ is doing a lot of work here, I recall Rees-Mogg claiming we should remove tariffs on goods where we rely on imports. That means almost all raw foods with the exception of barley and oats. This would also obviously cover trainers, clothing, mobile phones, TV’s, computers, even fertiliser and farm machinery but Eustice is not complaining about those imports.
If Eustice’s trade revisionism doesn’t revive his political career, he could always try ‘I’m a celebrity’. I am sure that the entire population of UK consumers trying to stretch the family budget would hugely enjoy watching him eat grubs and kangaroo testicles.
Meanwhile, he might consider swallowing his words before launching another attack on trade deals that will eventually benefit the entire UK population with cheaper food as well as immediately benefit the UK’s vehicle, machinery, chemical and pharmaceutical industries.
Catherine McBride is an economist and a member of the Government’s Trade and Agriculture Commission reviewing the UK’s new trade deals.