The main elements of the deal were agreed by prime minister Boris Johnson and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison at a meeting in Downing Street yesterday. A final ‘Agreement in Principle’ will be published in the coming days.
The first major trade deal negotiated from scratch by the government since the UK left the EU, it eliminates tariffs on all UK goods and will give UK and Australian food producers and other businesses easier access to each other's markets.
But green groups are concerned because farmers in Australia are allowed to use a number of hormone growth promoters, pesticides, and feed additives that are banned in the UK.
Dr Richard Benwell, chief executive of the NGO Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “The future of UK farming is at a major crossroads. The government is asking farmers to step up their game on environment and welfare standards, but at the same time post-Brexit trade deals could flood the market with cheaper, lower standard food and goods.
“Australia has much weaker animal welfare standards than the UK and this deal could open the door to hormone-filled meat from abattoirs with very low welfare standards, produce reared in barren battery cages, which are banned in the UK, and beef with a much higher carbon footprint. Our food system isn’t perfect but we should be proud of our higher welfare standards and, as a nation of animal-lovers, we should protect these standards.”
The government says British farmers will be protected by a cap on tariff-free imports for 15 years, using tariff rate quotas and other safeguards.
However, Benwell said the UK farming system would “still face a downward pressure on welfare issues from this deal”.
During the meeting yesterday the two nations agreed to work closely together on defence, technology collaboration and tackling climate change – including through a future “Clean Tech Partnership”.
However, Australia has a poor record on tackling climate change.
Tanya Steele, chief executive of WWF, wrote in the Independent that Australia’s agriculture sector has helped drive "the highest rate of deforestation in the OECD” with the rate of tree cover loss in the country increasing by 34% between 2016-18.
She said a trade deal with Australia would be “catastrophic for the environment and animal welfare”.
"Unfettered access to UK markets should reward those who meet our standards on climate, nature and animal welfare – and should not prioritise outdated farming systems, like Australia’s, which are fuelling the climate and nature crisis," she added.
According to the government, the UK exported £5.4bn worth of services, including £1.4bn of insurance and pension services and £780m of financial services, to Australia in 2020. The government says red tape and bureaucracy will “be torn down” for more than 13,000 small and medium sized businesses across the UK who already export goods to Australia, with quicker export times.
Parliament will scrutinise the agreement in detail once the text is published, along with an impact assessment and explanatory memorandum.