Yesterday, Welsh secretary Alun Cairns made the point that, in the event of a no deal Brexit, Welsh sheep farmers would be able to take advantage of new markets, such as Japan which was recently opened up.
It’s correct to say that the UK will not be able to immediately roll over the EU-Japan trade agreement in the event of a no deal Brexit. This will affect aspects of trade with Japan.
However the export market for lamb wasn’t opened up as a consequence of this deal. It was opened up by the efforts of UK and Japanese negotiators to lift a ban on exports of beef and lamb to Japan, which had been imposed in 1996 after the BSE outbreak.
Before the lifting of the ban this year, British farmers weren't able to export lamb to Japan at all.
The EU-Japan trade deal also doesn’t affect the competitiveness of lamb exports. Japan, which historically has not had a large sheep farming sector, imposes no tariffs on importing lamb from anywhere in the world.
So, with respect to lamb exports, the EU’s trade deal does not affect the ability for the UK to export sheep meat to Japan, nor does it make it any more competitive (at least in respect to tariffs).
You can see this by looking at Ireland, which was in a similar situation to Britain. Japan only agreed in June to lift the ban on imports of Irish lamb, despite the EU-Japan trade agreement coming into force in February this year.
Is it realistic to expect sheep farmers to export elsewhere?
The technical detail about how the UK exports lamb to the EU is less important than looking at the implication of Mr Cairns’ comments.
Mr Cairns essentially makes the case that in the event of a no deal Brexit, which is expected to mean tariffs of between 38% and 91% on sheep meat exports to the EU, farmers will be able to take opportunity of new markets such as Japan.
So what’s the current size of that market and its potential?
In the first five months of the year, the UK exported almost £152 million of sheep meat (including lamb and mutton) to the EU, and around £5 million outside the EU. The EU accounts for 97% of British sheep meat exports.
The UK’s current sales of sheep meat to Japan are very modest, at just £4,000 this year.
However Japan does import quite a lot of sheep meat—around £67 million in the first five months of the year, the vast majority of which came from Australia and New Zealand, the two biggest sheep meat exporters worldwide. Consumption of lamb in the country is also on the rise.
Nevertheless it seems unlikely that a decline in trade with the EU could be counterbalanced by increased trade with the rest of the world.
The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) says that while there may be some opportunities for sheep farmers to export to non-EU destinations (particularly in Asia) these would face strong competition from New Zealand and Australian exports, given their lower costs and geographical proximity to the Asian market.
It says: “The USA and Canada could also offer some prospects for exports of premium cuts, but the fact remains that if the UK is unable to competitively supply sheep meat to the EU from the end of March 2019, there’s no other outlet that could come close, where volume is concerned, at least in the near-term.”
Update 12 August 2019
We updated this piece to clarify when the ban on lamb exports from the UK to Japan was lifted.
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