Mexican beef could hit UK supermarket shelves as the farming minister confirmed that the high-carbon meat could be imported under a new trade deal.
Mark Spencer told journalists at the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) conference in Birmingham that the deal could pave the way for meat from the Latin American country, declaring: “We have to be fair to everyone; we can’t say we will sell milk to you but we won’t buy your beef.”
However, farmers were concerned that this could undermine UK beef, which is lower-carbon than that sold in Mexico. Additionally, investigations have found that the livestock sector in the country is plagued by tropical deforestation.
The NFU president, Minette Batters, said: “I am very concerned about links to deforestation. From Mexico our lines are pretty tough on this having given away so much on beef to Australia and New Zealand. We want the government to take a very, very firm line on further imports of beef.
“Environmental impacts are why beef was a sensitive sector, both in New Zealand and in Australia. And now in Mexico. And we want them now to really show that they are keeping their promises of not undermining farmers and trade deals. We don’t want to see further imports of beef.”
Rob Rose, a regenerative beef farmer from Rosewood farm in Yorkshire, said there was no justification for importing beef produced to lower standards.
He told media: “I can see no justification for importing any beef into the UK – it certainly won’t help UK farmers or food security if the standards or price of that beef is lower than that which we can produce in the UK.”
Dustin Benton, the Green Alliance policy director, added: “Mexican beef is somewhat more carbon-intensive than UK beef. It doesn’t make sense to undermine British producers with higher carbon imports.”
Earlier, Spencer had hailed the announcement of £168m in grants to farmers as a way for them to increase productivity and improve animal health. “The role farmers play in putting food on our tables as well as looking after our countryside is crucial. We know that sustainable food production depends on a healthy environment. The two go hand in hand.”
“Helping farms invest in new technology as well as bringing in nature-friendly schemes will support the future of farming.”
But the government’s latest attempts to woo farmers – who are facing severe hardship owing to high inflation – looked destined to fall flat, as it emerged that the money offered for the boost was merely recycled from a previous underspend.
Martin Lines, the chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said: “It doesn’t look like it’s new money. It’s welcome investment that can help farmers invest in better productivity but if they are using the pot as part of the BPS [basic payment scheme, the current support for farmers] pot, there will be less money to deliver for environmental outputs. What isn’t getting done because they are using this money?”
Tim Farron, the environment spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, said the re-announcement of money already pledged showed that the government had not grasped the issues facing farmers. “It’s an admission that the government hasn’t kept its election pledge to farmers, and that they have spent far less than promised,” he said. “Innovation grants to farmers could be helpful, but not instead of the regular support that farmers were promised.”
Mark Tufnell, the president of the Country Land and Business Association, added that changes to regulations were also needed: “Agriculture is a vibrant sector for research and development, with huge potential for increased productivity and automation. This announcement takes us one step closer to exploiting that potential. Funding alone, however, will not fix our productivity issues. We know of many farm businesses who have scrapped plans for investment in, for example, reservoirs, because the planning system is so woeful that it takes too long to receive the permissions. So any financial support from the government needs to go hand in hand with regulatory reform.”
Farmers are being hit hard by rising prices for fuel, fertiliser and animal feed. They are also concerned about lax post-Brexit border controls that threaten to import animal diseases, and angry at the threat of an influx of cheap food from overseas competitors with lower standards, owing to trade deals that look set to disadvantage UK farmers.
Farmers will receive £2.4bn a year in public payments following Brexit. That is spending that ministers have guaranteed until the end of this parliament. The amount is based on what farmers used to gain from the EU’s common agricultural policy, but the criteria on which it is allocated to farmers is changing from payments based on the amount of land farmed to payments based on farmers taking action to improve the environment.
But many farmers are concerned that they are losing out in the transition, and farming leaders have warned that food production must be a focus of the new payments, as well as environmental improvements.
Rishi Sunak has chosen not to attend the annual NFU conference in Birmingham this year, sending a pre-recorded video message instead.
Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour party, will address the conference on Tuesday afternoon, his latest attempt to court the vital rural vote without which Labour cannot hope to regain power. He will promise measures to benefit rural communities, including more police in rural areas and clean-up squads for fly-tippers, and pledge that 50% of publicly procured food must come from the UK.
Minette Batters, the president of the NFU, warned that input prices had risen by about 50% since 2019, despite recent falls in the price of energy. Bird flu is also on the rise, the threat of African swine fever spreading from Europe is alarming the pig sector, and the stranglehold of the big supermarkets over farm producers means farmers make only tiny profits from their produce, as low as 0.09p in profit from a loaf of bread.
Batters warned the government: “The clock is ticking … The time is nearly up for government to demonstrate its commitment to food and farming in our great country, not just by saying they support us, but by showing us they do.”
A government spokesperson said: “The UK is a global leader in environmental protection and animal welfare and we will never sign a trade deal that compromises on these standards.
“Our approach to trade is clear. We are committed to realising the benefits of greater trade, opening up new markets for our world-class British produce, and ensuring that our approach works for farmers, consumers and businesses.”
UK farmers voice concern as UK minister confirms beef could be imported from Mexico