European farmers’ unions are urging the European Commission not to allow a surge in beef imports from South America’s Mercosur trading bloc, saying it would have a “devastating impact” on rural jobs and EU food standards.
The EU hopes to finalise a free trade deal with the Mercosur bloc by the end of 2017, after almost two decades of stop-start negotiations.
But Brazil, a prominent member of Mercosur, recently warned that it would dig in its heels in talks unless the EU freed up market access for its beef exporters. Mercosur countries are already the biggest exporters of beef to the EU, accounting for up to three-quarters of EU beef imports. Their production costs are significantly lower than those of their EU counterparts.
Europe’s beef farmers, already facing falling demand and Brexit uncertainty, have voiced strong opposition to any such market liberalisation and urged EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström not to cave in to pressure from the South American bloc.
“Now is not the time for the EU to make a new offer on Mercosur with the threat and uncertainty of Brexit and the associated impact that the sterling exchange rate is having on the beef sector,” Irish Farmers Association (IFA) President Joe Healy said after a meeting with members of Malmström’s cabinet last week.
Irish sources already told EURACTIV of the “existential threat” Brexit poses to the country’s beef sector. Britain absorbs half of Ireland’s beef exports but the weak pound has driven down prices paid by UK buyers, destroying farmers’ profit margins.
If tariffs are applied to beef exports to the UK after Brexit, Irish farmers will have to look for new markets and the EU risks seeing a supply glut and depressed prices.
Farmers fear that a surge in cheap imports from South America would further drive down prices at a time when demand for beef in Europe has already fallen by 20% in the last decade.
“There is no room in the EU beef sector for additional imports or concessions to Mercosur [which] will have a devastating impact on farmers,” Healy said, pointing to the EU’s own impact assessment, which found that a Mercosur trade deal would damage the EU beef sector.
Beside the impact on prices, farmers’ unions are concerned about the effect that freer trade in beef with Mercosur countries would have on Europe’s high food quality and animal welfare standards, not to mention the environment.
“We record an individual animal’s movements from the day it is born to the day it dies, whilst in Mercosur countries, only 10% of the animal’s life is covered,” said Jean-Pierre Fleury, the chairman of the beef working party at Copa-Cogeca, the association of European farmers and agri-cooperatives. “Our system reassures consumers about the safety and quality of their meat.”
Confidence in Brazil’s food standards was shaken earlier this year when it emerged that some of the country’s biggest meat packing companies had been knowingly selling rotten and salmonella-contaminated meat, in a scandal involving high-level political corruption.
The IFA also questioned the wisdom of undercutting sustainable European producers with imports farmed on land reclaimed through deforestation in the Amazon.