Brexit: Australia trade deal may lead to deal with South America, where intensive farming destroys rainforests

·4-min read
In Brazil, the world’s largest exporter of red meat, trees are razed to make way for cattle ranching (Getty)
In Brazil, the world’s largest exporter of red meat, trees are razed to make way for cattle ranching (Getty)

The government’s Australia deal could lead to a similar trade pact with South America, where tropical forests are increasingly being razed for intensive farming, driving the climate crisis, environmentalists fear.

And concerns have been raised that UK schoolchildren, hospital patients and restaurant and canteen customers could eat products from animals that have been treated in ways that would be illegal in the UK.

The EU reached a deal in principle two years ago with the so-called Mercosur bloc of Latin American countries, covering tariffs and trade barriers.

And ministers say the government’s trade deal with Australia will boost UK attempts to join the trans-Pacific partnership (CPTPP) trade alliance, which covers Pacific nations from Japan to Mexico.

The UK’s Eurogroup taskforce – a coalition of animal-protection representatives – has warned that the UK will follow the EU and end up funding ecologically damaging and cruel practices.

The RSPCA sounded the alarm over the UK supporting lower standards when the Australia deal was imminent earlier this year.

Animal Equality, an international animal welfare organisation, said a South America deal would “trigger further deforestation, put greater pressure on Brazilian biodiversity, and create an increased likelihood of zoonotic diseases arising and a significant reduction in the standards of imported products into Europe”.

In the Amazon, swathes of land are routinely cleared to rear cattle for beef exports and to plant soya to feed them. The deforestation, biodiversity loss and human-rights violations in Brazil have prompted the UK, as well as the EU and the US, to consider legal action.

The forest loss creates even more of the emissions driving the climate crisis, because trees and vegetation soak up carbon. Last year figures showed an area of forest the size of a football pitch was lost every six seconds.

Cornelia Maarfield, trade and climate project manager at the global Climate Action Network coalition, said the current trade pattern, even before any agreement, was already driving deforestation, and that future deals could make the problem even worse.

She pointed to a report commissioned by the French government on the EU-Mercosur trade agreement, showing that the growth of beef production in South America due to the EU-Mercosur deal would accelerate tree loss by at least 25 per cent a year and would destroy 36,000 sq km of forest a year.

“The report concludes that taking deforestation into account, the climate costs would outweigh the economic benefits,” she said.

Intensive animal agriculture has repeatedly been linked to the risk of pandemics, with the world’s leading scientists calling for a worldwide cut in meat consumption.

Claire Bass, executive director of Humane Society International in the UK, said intensive farming practices in South and Central America risked creating new diseases, and warned that any UK deal would go against the standards the public wanted.

“The EU and UK have made significant progress in reversing some of the most egregious production practices in intensive animal agriculture, such as confining hens in battery cages so small they are unable to even stretch their wings,” she said.

“However, hundreds of millions of hens, pigs and other animals endure miserable lives of perpetual confinement in countries like Mexico and Brazil, including battery cages and sow stalls, which have been banned in the UK for many years.”

As well as being cruel, intensive confinement of farm animals was also linked to the generation of more virulent diseases because of the sheer number of animals crowded together in insanitary environments, she said.

“Any trade policy that allows the import of animal products that do not comport to the animal welfare policies of the UK and EU simply props up an industry that the public has already firmly rejected, and further undermines the science behind those decisions.”

In Mexico, sow stalls – banned in the UK since 1999 – are still legal, and most hens both there and in Brazil are kept in battery cages, a practice that has been banned in the UK since 2012 on welfare grounds, she said.

EU experts in a report last year described Brazil’s regulations on slaughter and transport as “insufficient”.

The World Animal Protection charity grades the country only as D – on a scale where A is the best and G the worst.

It noted that the EU’s Food and Veterinary Office had found that Brazilian authorities “cannot guarantee that meat products exported to the EU have been produced in accordance with EU requirements”.

Some substances are authorised for use in cattle in Brazil that cannot be used in the EU, it reported.

As far back as last year, a Compassion in World Farming briefing warned that Brazil was increasingly moving towards the use of feedlots, which “would completely undermine our farmers if these products were imported into the UK”.

A spokesperson for the Trade and Animal Welfare Coalition, part of the Eurogroup for Animals, said: “The UK should be using its trade policy to promote better welfare internationally, not to further incentivise or outsource lower welfare and unsustainable production systems in other parts of the world, impacting wild animals as well.”

A government spokesperson said: “In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards,” reiterating the wording contained in the Conservatives’ manifesto.

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