Trade Minister Greg Hands has said British farmers have nothing to fear from a proposed free trade deal with Australia.
Mr Hands told the Commons he gave a “cast iron guarantee” that British standards would not be lowered in the search for a deal. Farmers have warned they could struggle to compete if Australia was given tariff-free access to UK markets.
But the minister said farmers should “be positive, not fearful”. Mr. Hands also said that beef injected with hormone would not be allowed into the UK.
The government is hoping to secure a post-Brexit deal with Australia in the next few weeks.
But National Farmers Union president Minette Batters has warned removing tariffs on meat imports would “have a massive impact” on British farms, which would be unable to compete, in terms of scale, with Australia’s vast cattle and sheep stations.
Shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry said during the Commons debate on Thursday that Labour could not support a “rushed-through” deal.
“Let me make clear at the outset that we support a trade deal with Australia which is designed in British interests, which will create jobs in our economy and increase our exports and growth,” she said.
Ms Thornberry added: “We cannot support a deal on agricultural tariffs that will cost jobs in our farming communities, uncut our food standards, increase our carbon off-shoring and open the door to the destruction of our farming industry through further lop-sided trade deals.”
Mr Hands rejected any suggestion that UK farmers would be disadvantage. “There will be no compromise on our standards of animal welfare, food safety and the environment. That is in our manifesto commitment.”
Another concern of UK farmer is that an Australia deal will be a template for other agreements with countries in Asia, piling more pressure on the sector from cheaper imported goods.
But Mr Hands said farmers should see an agreement with Australia as opening new markets overseas for their own produce.
“This will be a great deal for the UK and our farmers will continue to thrive. The agreement is a gateway into the massive CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) free trade area in Asia and Pacific,” he said.
It would, he added, open “doors for our farmers into some of the biggest economics of now and the future”.
The UK has offered trade deal terms to Australia under which both countries would phase out taxes on imports over 15 years.
The cabinet was reportedly split on what terms to propose, amid concerns UK beef and lamb farmers could be undercut by larger Australian producers. But the dispute was apparently resolved after Boris Johnson pushed for unity.
Currently, metals, wine and machines form the biggest goods exports from Australia to the UK, while Australia’s main UK imports are cars, medicines and alcoholic drinks.
Trade in meat between the two countries is small, with 0.15% of all Australian beef exports going to the UK and 14% of sheep meat imports to the UK coming from Australia.