Opinion

China will control the tenor of the UK and global food markets

It can be taken for granted that the UK government intends securing free trade arrangements with countries around the world, including the likes of the United States, Brazil, New Zealand and Australia.

The pitch from London will go as follows: we can deliver a wide range of financial and other services in return for whatever you would like to offer us in return.

Now, it so happens that the aforementioned countries constitute a pretty significant chunk of the world’s food production capacity.

Food imports

So when it comes to the UK finalising deals with these ‘new’ trading partners, the issue of food imports will be very much on the table.

But what has all this got to do with Ireland? Well, as it turns out; quite a lot. Britain is the destination for most of the beef and cheddar cheese produced on this island. It is also an extremely lucrative market for both of these commodities.

So can we look to a world in which cheap beef from Brazil and Australia, in tandem with chlorinated chicken from the United States and every imaginable form of dairy product from New Zealand, succeed in switching the lights out for every beef, dairy and poultry farmer in the UK and Ireland?

In theory, this could happen. However, China may be the reason for such a calamity not coming to pass.

China’s location

Let’s consider the geography associated with these various options. If the Chinese economy remains healthy and food demand in that country remains strong, it makes more sense for New Zealand to deal with Beijing, as opposed to London.

We are seeing evidence of this already. Currently, New Zealand is not filling its agreed lamb export quota to the EU, because it makes sense to put all of its available sheep meat in the direction of China. Prices there are strong and it’s a much closer market to service.

The same principle holds for Australian beef. No doubt the United States will up its food exports to China, once President Biden improves the mood music between Washington and Beijing.

Brazil is also supplying China with large tonnages of beef at the present time. But, I sense, the Brazilian beef industry would bite off its hand to get wider access to the UK market, whatever the number of hoops it had to jump through.

Post-Brexit

Ireland has every right to demand that Brussels puts clear ‘quality’ beef production standards in place when it comes to the EU agreeing a Mercosur trade deal. But in a post-Brexit world it can’t take the same approach with London.

So why not support the UK’s farming organisations to that end? The likes of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has already flagged up the need for a level playing field when it comes to the UK agreeing the management standards achieved in the production of the food imports that are included in future trade deals.

The reality is that the British farming unions, UK consumers and the likes of McDonald’s do not fear Irish beef. In fact, the opposite is the case.

But the spectre of beef from Brazil getting unfettered access to the British market is, no doubt, providing NFU president Minette Batters with more than the odd sleepless night at the present time.

I would have thought this fact alone would have given all the Irish farming organisations tremendous common ground to develop a strong, post-Brexit working relationship with their UK counterparts.

But this is only part of the solution when it comes to ensuring that the UK remains a premium market for Irish food.

In the new, post-Brexit world, there is a strong need for Bord Bia to communicate all that is good about beef, lamb, dairy and all the other exemplary food products produced in Ireland. And the clock is ticking!