Free Trade Agreement: New Zealand lamb at centre of furore in United Kingdom Parliament

New Zealand lamb is again at the centre of a debate in the United Kingdom's Parliament after a Conservative minister said eating the animal product from Aotearoa "is better for the environment" than buying local sheep meat.

A member of the UK Liberal Democrats hit back, calling that an "insult to farmers across the country" and a failure by the Conservative Government to support local meat producers.

Debate about the liberalisation of lamb export tariffs as part of the New Zealand-United Kingdom Free Trade Agreement has been stirring since the two countries secured the deal back in 2021. 

The FTA includes no duties on sheep meat exports to the UK from the 16th year of being in force and an increased tariff-free quota in the meantime.

That's raised concerns in the UK, however, that there could be an influx of cheaper New Zealand products, disadvantaging local farmers.

Although the FTA has been agreed to, it must be ratified by both parties before coming into effect. New Zealand passed necessary legislation last year, but is now waiting on the UK. Legislation there has moved through the House of Commons and currently sits in the House of Lords.

Lamb was a key focus during a debate in the House of Lords on Tuesday (NZT), with a number of Conservative members agreeing with the provisions set out in the deal, or thinking it could be more ambitious.

However, a contribution from Lord Johnson, a Conservative Minister of State at the UK's Department of International Trade, has ruffled feathers.

He said advice was that the impacts from transport-related emissions associated with increased trade as a result of the FTA "are likely to be negligible".

"This idea that we are going to have huge greenhouse emissions on account of transport increases is simply not being predicted," Lord Johnson said.

He then agreed with his Conservative colleague Lord Hannan that, "having a New Zealand lamb chop on your plate in the House of Lords restaurant is better for the environment than having one that comes from another part of the UK".

"Why can we not ask other parties to celebrate where we see environmental benefits from these trade deals? The assumption is that all trade deals are somehow negative for the environment; how can that possibly be the case?

"The environmental impact of the production of New Zealand lamb is lower than ours in many cases, even if you include transport costs."

New Zealand's product is being defended by some, but attacked by others.
New Zealand's product is being defended by some, but attacked by others. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Those remarks have angered House of Commons Liberal Democrat MP Helen Morgan, who is reported by local media to have called it an "insult to British farmers". 

"Liberal Democrats are appalled at any minister lauding foreign produce over the incredibly high-quality food our farmers produce for our tables while protecting and enhancing our natural environment."

Morgan said there can be lower welfare standards for animals in New Zealand compared to in the United Kingdom.

However, Beef + Lamb New Zealand has pointed out that the FTA includes an agreement between the two countries that animal welfare is important. 

"The agreement includes a significant Animal Welfare Chapter, which recognises that while New Zealand and the UK's production practices are substantively different, each country accords a high priority to animal welfare in those practices, which provide largely comparable outcomes and welfare protection," the group said in a statement last year.

Jane Dodds, another Liberal Democrat who sits in the Welsh Parliament, also reportedly called Lord Johnson's remarks "insulting". 

"We already had to put up with the Conservatives selling our farmers down the river with the deeply unequal New Zealand and Australian trade deals, now another Minister is just rubbing salt into the wound," Dodds said.

"The Minister supposed to represent British people is commending New Zealand lamb over our own."

During Tuesday's debate, Lord Frost, who served in Boris Johnson's Government and was the former top negotiator for the UK leaving the European Union, said the deal could actually be more ambitious.

"The very long transitional period of 15 years delays unnecessarily the benefits to our economy of cheaper and high-quality beef and lamb in our market.

"I have full confidence in the ability of our farming sector to adjust to competition, and we should have pushed for a slightly shorter period in the interests of the UK consumer."

He said he believed the benefits of trade were imports and the resulting increase in competition in a country's market rather than exports to other markets.

A Labour member, Lord Liddle, expressed worry about the potential flooding of the market if New Zealand was no longer able to export to China and sent all of its product to the UK instead.

A UK Parliament report on the FTA last year said it should be ratified, but did note it could come at a cost to British producers. 

"We question whether the Government has fully weighed the benefits and costs of this approach, particularly in terms of the potential effects on the UK's agri-food sector. 

"For example, we heard that much of New Zealand's beef, sheepmeat and dairy is produced more cheaply than in the UK, and at a significantly lower carbon-intensity.

"On the other hand, we are concerned that the safeguards put in place to protect food producers in the UK might not be sufficient, and that the Agreement offers few alternative opportunities for them."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has previously spoken about the need to ensure New Zealand's agriculture sector is ahead of the world in being environmentally-friendly.

In announcing changes to the Government's proposed agriculture emissions pricing scheme in December, she said the global market is "increasingly demanding sustainably produced products". 

"If we don't establish a credible plan to reduce agriculture emissions the future of our exports are at stake."