Josh Cameron: British farmers should bet on themselves and welcome a free-trade revolution

5 Jun

Josh Cameron is a public affairs consultant in London and a former senior adviser to New Zealand Prime Minister Sir John Key.

For free trade advocates who have chaffed as the UK stood mired in the bog of EU protectionism, witnessing the ‘sprint to the finish’ for trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand is a thrilling experience.

While both antipodean nations have used the decades since they lost meaningful access to the British market to carve out remarkable export opportunities elsewhere, it will still be welcome to see the UK reopen door.

It is that history that makes the feverish opposition from the UK’s most recent proponents of ‘Project Fear’ – the National Farmers Union and their political outriders – so aggravating. With a flair for melodramatic self-pity that could rival Prince Harry in an Oprah interview, the NFU and chums have spent the post-referendum years churning out predictions of doom as they attempt to stop the UK’s agricultural sector facing any new domestic competition.

The British public has been told that trade deals with Australia and New Zealand will lead to agricultural Armageddon. Emotive claims predict food security catastrophes, a countryside of factory farms, increased farmer suicides, the end of ‘Wales being Wales’ and, most recently, the UK’s landscape being turned into a new Australian outback.

No reasonable observer could believe that increasing imports of antipodean protein from ‘tiny’ to ‘incredibly small’ could turn the Lake District into a desert or cause Wales to disappear. The main impact of these claims is to fuel the belief that the British agricultural sector is headed into a period of terminal, if managed, decline. This needn’t be the case.

The worst part of the NFU’s ‘Project Fear’ isn’t the denigration of antipodean agriculture or the entitled disregard for the interests of the British consumer. It is their complete lack of faith in their own member’s ability to adapt and thrive in a globally competitive market.

It is true that decades of EU protectionist policies created to mollycoddle French farmers have done the UK no favours. Production controls and taxpayer hand-outs based on land clearance have led to subsidy dependence and farming of inappropriate land. But the terrible policies of the recent past should not define the farming sector in the years to come. Countries in a similar position have shown that a focus on quality production, removal of subsidies, and the elimination of tariff barriers, provides good farmers with every chance and motivation to thrive at home and abroad.

My native New Zealand is the most salient example of what can be achieved. The UK joining the EEC was believed to represent a devastating moment for the New Zealand agricultural sector. Cut off almost completely from its largest export market, the country stumbled on with absurd subsidies and protectionist policies for the best part of a decade before a determined government abolished all tariffs and subsidies virtually overnight.

What followed was not the cultural and economic devastation foretold by New Zealand’s own agents of fear – it was the birth of one of the most efficient and competitive farming industries in the world.

Less than one percent of farms closed and existing agricultural sectors became exponentially more efficient even as new agricultural strengths took-off. New Zealand’s sheep numbers fell from 70 million in the 80s to 26 million today. This reduced flock produces the same tonnage of meat and is raised, slaughtered and exported with an incredibly small carbon footprint.

With the loss of the incentive to maximise subsidies, innovation and experimentation thrived. Some bright spark had the idea that the low-value, stony sheep farms of the Gimblett Gravels might be a decent spot to plant vines. Four decades on and the vineyards of the Gravels sit on some of the highest-value land in the country and produce some of the world’s best wines.

The NFU’s answer to this comparison is that the UK and New Zealand are very different and the success of rapid transition away from protectionist welfare farming to open efficient farming cannot be replicated in the UK. This simply isn’t true.

The UK and New Zealand have a similar climate, are of a similar size, and have similarly high standards of animal welfare. Citizens of both countries have high expectations of environmental stewardship and low tolerance for factory farming. The UK dedicates significantly more of its landmass to farming than New Zealand does and its farmers still have access to the wealthy consumers of the EU. If the UK joins the CPTPP, British producers will also gain more access to the dinner plates of the Asia Pacific’s growing middle-class.

When all of these strengths and similarities are considered the protectionist’s claim that British farmers cannot possibly compete with foreign producers and will be forced to adopt the most unappealing aspects of intensive American factory farming simply do not stand up to the scrutiny. The UK can embrace market forces and consumer preferences while it pursues an environmentally, socially, and economically superior model of agricultural reform pioneered by New Zealand.

Far from being a harbinger of environmental and agricultural Armageddon, the UK’s new independent trade policy presents a once in a generation opportunity for domestic reform. This is not a threat to farmers; it is their opportunity to make the most of their considerable talents and play a role in the establishment of a sustainable, efficient agriculture sector that is fit for the Twenty First Century. I, for one, will be cheering them on.