Could Brexit Open Up a New Market for Latin American Agriculture?

The demand will be there, but a range of barriers are likely to limit growth in agricultural trade links between the UK and Latin America.

Expert comment
Published 8 October 2019 Updated 25 August 2021 2 minute READ
An area of forest-pasture integration prepared to receive dairy cattle for feeding in Ipameri, Brazil. Photo: Getty Images.

An area of forest-pasture integration prepared to receive dairy cattle for feeding in Ipameri, Brazil. Photo: Getty Images.

Currently 73% of all UK agricultural imports come from the EU. That heavy dependence sparked a report by the British parliament expressing concern about the UK’s food security in the immediate aftermath of Brexit.

Meanwhile, Latin America’s agricultural powerhouses Brazil and Argentina only accounted for a total of 1.6% of the UK’s agricultural market across eight sectors in 2018. A growing relationship would seem to be an obvious fit post-Brexit – but a number of structural issues stand in the way.

There is certainly scope for increasing Latin American agricultural exports to the UK given current trade patterns. Two of the main agricultural imports that the UK buys from the EU are meat products, representing 82% of UK imports in that category, and dairy products and eggs; 98% of UK’s dairy- and egg-related external supply came from the EU. In both these areas, Brazil and Argentina could have comparative advantages, including lower prices.

But any improvement in agricultural trade links will depend on two factors: 1) how the UK leaves the EU: whether it crashes out, negotiates an easy exit or leaves at all; and 2) whether Latin American agricultural producers can improve their environmental practices and can meet the production standards established by the EU and likely maintained by a post-Brexit Britain.

Some of the key issues that will affect this are:

Tariff structures

On the UK side, there is pressure by domestic agricultural producers to raise UK tariffs to allow them to expand their local market share. Yet, despite the pressures from local farmers, the UK has laid out two scenarios.

In one case, the UK government has stated that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, tariffs will be lowered to 0%, but there is no firm commitment and this would likely be temporary. It is also unlikely that those would apply to all agricultural products. In the case of beef imports (of which Argentina and Brazil are major exporters), the UK has proposed that ‘no deal’ would bring a reduction on tariffs on a range of beef products of roughly half.

Meanwhile, tariffs on EU imports could go up. Even if the UK establishes 0% tariffs on EU products, it’s possible that the EU will not reciprocate, instead choosing to revert to the World Trade Organization’s most-favoured-nation tariffs. To take one example of what that would mean, under existing most-favoured-nation tariffs on beef, the tariffs range from €6.80 per 100 kilograms of full bovine carcasses or half carcasses all the way up to €161.10 for 160 kilograms of prepared or preserved meat, including sausages.

Free trade agreements between the EU and Latin American countries

The EU has free trade agreements with the Central American bloc of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama; Mexico; Chile; and the Andean countries of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. In all those cases, the UK has expressed its desire to maintain its liberal trade framework with those countries.

Even if the UK leaves without a deal and tariffs do increase on EU agricultural exports, though, these Western Hemisphere economies are unlikely to see a large boost in their food exports to the UK. Chile and other large fruit producers are already locked into the Chinese market. And the real agricultural powerhouses, Argentina and Brazil, are now part of the EU trade agreement with Mercosur.

Since that agreement is not yet in force, the UK and Mercosur would need to negotiate a separate agreement. Such an agreement may be easier to ratify than the EU agreement since there is only one partner (the UK) for such a deal, but the likely change in government in Argentina after the 27 October elections may make it difficult to secure a deal on the Mercosur side.

Some EU trade agreements also include arrangements for tariff rate quotas. An EU quota with Argentina, for example, allows more than 280,000 tonnes of lamb to be imported to the EU duty free from Argentina, among other countries. It is unclear whether these quotas will be maintained or even expanded by the UK post-Brexit.

Phytosanitary standards and rules governing the treatment of animals

Non-tariff barriers concerning production practices could play a key role. The large UK consumer organization Which? raised the concern before parliament that in the scramble to replace EU food imports, the UK could diverge from EU standards on animal cloning, the use of growth hormones and hygiene in poultry production. Pressure to maintain those standards would likely exclude many products from South America.

Beyond the regulatory barriers, there is also the possibility that UK consumers may reject agricultural products produced in less sustainable and humane conditions, or in countries (such as Brazil) that are seen by the public as abusing the environment.

In short, an increase in Latin American agricultural exports to the UK market may not happen as easily or as quickly as some hope after Brexit. In fact, it may not happen at all. But if Latin American countries – Argentina and Brazil in particular – want to capture this potential new market, the first step both should be to improve their environmental profile and standards at both the government and producer level.