National Farmers’ Federation Fiona Simson’s opinion editorial to the Australian Financial Review.
The European Union’s commissioner for agriculture and rural development, Phil Hogan, has been in Australia this week promoting the virtues of Australia expanding protection for geographical indications, or GIs – which means that foods that come from specific regions can only be labelled so by producers in those regions. Champagne anyone?
The EU has made it crystal clear there will be no trade agreement without Australia caving on GIs.
Let’s not mince words here – extending protection to existing European GIs will hurt Australian farmers, and dairy farmers and wine producers in particular. These are the same farmers you’ve seen on your TV screens managing droughts and floods.
When you are in the supermarket looking for that camembert or brie for a cheese platter, you won’t be looking for the ‘soft-centred white cheese’. Or if you need some fetta for your spinach pie, the ‘brined curd white salad cheese’ is unlikely to attract your attention. Australian consumers have come to know and love Australian-made cheeses that use these generic descriptors. If we are forced to change the name, we will lose the market.
Extending protection for European GIs will not only damage our dairy and wine sectors. The EU GI list grows longer by the day. EU producers see the opportunity a GI listing presents for cutting others out of their market. It already includes meat products, oils and processed foods. Who knows where it will stop – olive oil? pizza? Can you imagine? Rather than ‘would you like some mozzarella on your pizza?’, it will be ‘would you like some firm white cheese made from buffalo or cow’s milk with your tomato-topped baked dough?’
GIs are a protectionist policy
One of the reasons it took so long for Australia and the EU to agree to negotiate a trade agreement was because of the EU’s protectionist agricultural trade policies. High tariffs, small quotas, billions of trade-distorting subsidies for European farmers, as well as GIs, all serve to shelter European farmers from the vagaries of the international market. Australia has long opposed regulating the use of common food names through GI regimes at the WTO and in other forums because they are fundamentally protectionist.
For the best part of 50 years, Australia has opened our market and reduced protection. This includes protection for agriculture. It’s not been easy. Being exposed to global markets means farmers take the punches when global prices head south, exchange rates shift, or countries close their borders to Australian products on a political whim. European farmers have had regular, guaranteed government payments to prop up their farms. Australian farmers have not.
What the Australian government has done is bust a gut to open and lock in, through trade agreements, access to as many international markets as possible. Access to markets gives farmers options for where they sell their product. It means they aren’t forced to sell to local retailers at the lowest price because they are the only buyers. One of the very few bright spots in this drought has been the prices farmers have received for their products. Prices for many agricultural products have generally held up because of improved access to important markets achieved through trade agreements.
Australian farmers have become experts at tapping into new markets.When the EU opened a new quota for high quality beef that met very specific conditions – our farmers rapidly adapted to capture a big chunk of that quota. Australian farmers are tough, hardworking, adaptable and constantly looking for ways to improve. We have to be to compete in global markets. We should not concede to EU requests that bolster EU agricultural protectionism and further whack Australian farmers.
Agreeing to GIs in and Australia-EU FTA would contradict Australia’s long-standing opposition to this protectionist policy, impose restrictions on how farmers market their product, and punish farmers already doing it tough.