Australian farmers under pressure at home & overseas

Most Australians would be aware of the challenges faced by Australian farmers at home – drought, fire, flood, biosecurity incursions and the tyranny of distance to name a few. These factors have seen Australian agriculture ranked as the riskiest sector in our economy. And Australian agriculture is ranked as the riskiest of agriculture sectors in developed countries internationally.

What seems
to be less known are the international market risks that Australian farmers must
also manage. These include international price and contract risk, changing
consumer tastes and government’s closing markets for political reasons.
Australian agriculture is already at a competitive disadvantage managing these
risks when you consider the massive production subsidies, and tariff and quota
barriers, provided by foreign governments to their farmers. These are
protections not available to Australian farmers.

The
international market risk faced by farmers has massively increased in recent
weeks with the US-China trade deal and Coronavirus predicted to radically
curtail Australia’s agricultural exports.

The US-China Phase One trade deal sets value thresholds for the agricultural products China must import from the US. At a minimum, China must import no less than US$12.5 billion above the 2017 baseline in CY 2020, and no less than US$19 billion above the 2017 baseline in CY 2021. Total US agricultural exports to China in CY 2017 was US$19.6 billion. So the agreement requires the Chinese to purchase, at a minimum, US$32.1 billion of US agricultural goods in 2020, and US$39 billion in 2021.

US total agricultural exports in 2019 was US$128.4 billion. If implemented in full, the deal will increase US agricultural exports to China from around 15 percent of their total ag exports, to roughly 30 percent over the next 2 years. This represents a radical shift in US agricultural trade exports.

In today’s @FinancialReview, @afsnsw says Govt must step up its diplomatic game as #coronavirus, #tradewars & the #EU threaten #AusAg | @Birmo @D_LittleproudMP #auspol https://t.co/R3FZSv6Wds

— National Farmers’ Federation (@NationalFarmers) February 17, 2020

The
question remains as to whether the US will be able to supply the value of
product required to meet the agreement’s minimum purchasing targets. But if it
does, the mandated doubling of US agricultural exports to China would allow US
exporters to all but name their price, putting upward pressure on the price of
agricultural products generally, including for US domestic consumers. It’s also
possible we’ll see US agricultural exports pulled from existing markets to
service the Chinese market.

The
agreement explicitly requires China to increase its imports of US oilseeds,
meat, cereals, cotton, dairy, horticultural products, nuts, wine, and seafood.
Australia’s current exports of these products to China will inevitably come
under increased pressure as a result. The competition will be all the more
acute with the US securing reduced regulatory barriers currently holding up US
imports of many of these products.

The US was
able to secure concessions from the Chinese that Australian authorities have
been unable to secure despite years of trying. These include automatic
recognition of processing facilities and safety systems for exporting dairy
(including infant formula), beef, pork, and rice to China. China has also
agreed to finalise and implement import protocols for a number of products
including potatoes, nectarines, blueberries, and avocadoes within 3 months.
While our free trade agreement with China delivered reduced tariffs, these
reductions are meaningless without import protocols in place.

The removal of these regulatory barriers are
major concessions that, in and of themselves, should deliver major new market
access opportunities for US agricultural exports.

You have to
wonder, though, whether the US should have stopped with these regulatory
concessions rather than push for thresholds for the value of imports the
Chinese are to buy.

It’s likely
that managing trade by setting value thresholds is probably in breach of non-discrimination
rules under the World Trade Organisation. So they create ammunition for
countries hurt by subsequent damage to their trade to bring a WTO dispute. It’s
also likely that mandated increased agricultural exports to China will increase
US farmer reliance on the Chinese market. Should the Chinese government turn
around and decide to impose new sanctions on US imports, US farmers will be
even more exposed. And should the US need to pull product from third markets to
service the Chinese market, they create opportunities for other exporters to
fill those gaps, including Australian exporters, severing supply relationships
and making it more difficult for US exporters to reenter those markets in
future.

In sum, the
US-China trade deal is going to make international agricultural markets more
uncertain and difficult for Australian exporters to navigate at least over the
next two year.

In addition
to the US China deal, Coronavirus travel bans and restrictions on movements
within China are holding up supply chains that would normally deliver $12
billion of Australia’s agricultural products to Chinese consumers – that is one
quarter of the nation’s total farm exports.

Already the
virus is having a negative impact on wool prices and seafood exports. There are
also anecdotal reports of products held up on wharves and contracts cancelled.

These new
developments come on top of years of competitive disadvantage created by the
agricultural subsidies paid by other governments to their farmers.

An upcoming
Agrifutures Australia report by Kym Anderson notes global farm support policies
as of 2014 lowered net farm incomes in Australia by 14 per cent and reduced
Australia’s farm exports by 27 per cent. Since 2014, the average nominal rate
of assistance to farmers in all OECD countries rose from 21 percent to 23 per
cent and rose more in the EU from 21 per cent to 25 per cent. The implication
is that subsidies, tariffs and quota protection provided by the EU is doing
more damage to Australia today than it was 6 years ago.

In addition
to highlighting the damage wrought by subsidies, the Agrifutures Australia
report highlights that tariffs and quotas impose as much damage on Australia’s
agricultural exports.

In terms of
reducing the international market risk, our current trade negotiations with the
EU presents a unique opportunity to deliver complete removal of all tariff and
quota restrictions. These are critical if Australia stands any chance of
redressing the many years of damage caused to Australian farmers by EU
policies.

It’s
unclear why the EU needs to continue to block Australian agricultural products.
The EU is the largest agri-food exporter in the world. Between December 2018
and November 2019 EU agri-food exports were A$243 billion – representing an 8.7
per cent increase on the year before. In that same period, the EU agri-food
trade surplus was A$49 billion – that’s equal to Australia’s total ag exports
for the same period.

Australian
farmers and exporters do what they can to manage the multiple risks thrown at
them every day. They invest in on-farm practices that build resilience and
international relationships that aim to reduce the uncertainty of international
markets. There is a point, however, where industry’s ability to manage risk
ends and outcomes depend on government effort – removing tariffs and quotas and
reducing regulatory barriers through trade agreements is one.

Australia’s
farmers depend on the Commonwealth Government to continue to advocate for the
extension of concessions achieved by the US to all Chinese importers. They also
need to hold the line in demanding the EU agree to remove their tariffs and
quotas on Australian ag exports.

Australian
farmers are doing their bit – we make no apologies about strongly lobbying the
Government to make sure they keep doing theirs.

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