NZ’s top trade negotiator Vangelis Vitalis has warned sheep and beef farmers in an online seminar that the pandemic had accelerated a resurgence in protectionism in agricultural trade and more was to come.
Billions of dollars in subsidies had been shovelled into the pockets of farmers in the world’s major economies to protect them from the fallout of trade wars and the hit to demand from the coronavirus.
“We are also seeing a somewhat troubling tendency to look to other mechanisms to try to protect farmers in other countries,” he said.
“Animal welfare measures, environmental standards – these are all the kinds of challenges we are going to have to think about as we look out into the future in terms of that rising protectionism that we are seeing.”
Beef + Lamb NZ’s senior trade policy manager Stephanie Honey says her organisation did its best to counter negative perceptions about the environmental impact of NZ agriculture.
“We have done research in the past on sustainability so that the carbon footprint of lamb, for example, to counter those arguments … about food miles,” she said.
“Earlier this year, we made a submission to the Europeans about sustainability … you know we are not in the business of burning down native bush to produce more beef.”
Beef’s environmental cost is in the spotlight right now in the EU after it struck a deal with the Mercosur bloc of South American countries last year.
European farming groups have gladly backed environmentalists concerned lower tariffs on South American beef will be at the expense of an acceleration in the clearance of the Amazon rainforest to raise more cattle to satisfy demand by EU consumers for cheap beef.
Pressure was now coming on the governments of EU member states not to ratify the trade agreement.
Vitalis says while it would be tempting to cheer any demise of the Mercosur agreement as a boost for rival exporters to the EU, such as NZ, such a view did not take account of all the consequences of the deal being torpedoed.
Such an outcome had the potential to embolden European protectionists and that could only be a negative for all countries seeking increased access to the EU’s consumer markets.
“Some of the protests that you see in the EU are a reminder how a bad news story on the environment, anywhere, can quickly become magnified and become a real challenge for us in a negotiating sense,” he said.
Vitalis acknowledged that while environmental regulations came at a cost to farmers here, they would have a pay-off in improved access to international markets if they helped quell opposition in those markets to free trade deals with NZ.
“We have a good environmental record and we need to be able to present that effectively internationally,” he said.
“The areas where there are questions (where) we are willing to address those and tackle those in a meaningful domestic policy way … those are all helpful to us in the negotiating context,” he said.
After more than two years of trade talks, Vitalis says he had yet to receive an acceptable agricultural market access offer from EU negotiators