Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC) chief executive, Ian Stevenson, recently gave evidence to Westminster’s Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee.

He was joined by Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) president, Victor Chestnutt, and Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA) executive director, Michael Bell.

The issue under scrutiny was the potential impact of the recently signed trade deals agreed by the UK with Australia and New Zealand on local farming and food.

“A number of MPs from Northern Ireland sit on the committee, which is chaired by Simon Hoare,” Stevenson confirmed.

“Our evidence was requested to help inform the committee on the potential impact of the recent trade deals agreed with the UK and Australia.

“The government will be interested in the committee’s findings on these important reserved matters. But I am also mindful of the fact that parliament has yet to finally ratify both agreements.

“So there remains some scope to raise issues of concern and approach, which may help the cause of the farming and food sectors here in Northern Ireland in the longer term.”

LMC on exports and imports

But the LMC’s chief executive is very aware that London has conceded on the defensive needs of the UK’s indigenous farming and food sectors in order to secure offensive export opportunities for the country’s manufacturing and service industries.

“It really is that clear cut,” Stevenson stressed.

“The likelihood of Northern Ireland’s farming and food sectors ever wanting to export significant volumes of produce to either Australia or New Zealand is extremely remote. We would never be able to compete within these markets on a cost basis.

“And the same principle holds for farming and food across the rest of the UK.

“In total contrast, however, both New Zealand and Australia would view the UK as a potentially lucrative market for their food exports into the future.”

Ian Stevenson does not believe that the UK is about to be swamped with food imports from the Antipodes. Rather, the impact of the recent trade deals will be much longer term in nature.

He said: “Currently, New Zealand and Australia are receiving good prices for the beef and lamb exports they supply to China, other Asian nations and north America.

“But should any of these markets falter, for any reason, then the UK would move more centre stage in terms of their thinking.”

Stevenson also pointed to the fact that in year 16, after the agreements reached with New Zealand and Australia come into effect, they will take on a fully liberalised nature.

Farming in Australia and NZ

Production agriculture is a major driver of both the Australian and New Zealand economies. Australia alone produces 2.3 million tonnes of carcase beef annually. This is equivalent to the output of some 7 million cattle.

“We here in Northern Ireland could never compete with an industry with this scale of operation,” the LMC representative stated.

“Australia exports 60% of its total beef output with Japan and USA the main export destinations currently. In comparison the UK imports about 360,000 tonnes of beef annually. The vast bulk of this product comes from the Republic of Ireland.

“Given the scope of the Australian beef industry, there is little doubt that the country could make real inroads within the British beef market, if it chose to do so at some future stage.”

According to Ian Stevenson, Australia could, almost certainly, target the UK’s food service and manufacturing sectors with a mix of frozen and chilled beef products.

“Australia is an export-focused nation and would no doubt be able to meet UK import requirements. The problem is that these import requirements are often below the norms of standards that we tend to operate to within the UK to service retail and food service customers.

“It’s highly unlikely that British food retailers would ever stock chilled Australian or New Zealand beef to any significant extent.

“They will continue to espouse the values that relate to all of the farm quality assurance schemes throughout the UK.

“However, if large quantities of beef were coming into the manufacturing or catering sectors from the southern hemisphere, this could act to significantly reduce the value of the red meat sector as a whole.

“And within such a scenario, it is the primary producer who would carry the cost for this.”

The LMC chief executive confirmed that the exposure of livestock farmers in Northern Ireland to the threat of red meat imports from Australia and New Zealand was communicated in the strongest possible terms to the members of the select committee.

Reference was also made to the recommendations of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, which focused on the benefits of eating higher quality beef and lamb within a scenario of consumers reducing the overall amounts of dietary red meat that they consume.