Farmers fear tariff-free imports could damage East Anglia's sugar industry after Brexit
PUBLISHED: 18:29 20 March 2018 | UPDATED: 14:15 21 March 2018
East Anglia's army of sugar beet growers have warned of potentially "fatal" damage to their industry if the government abolishes import tariffs after Brexit.
After negotiators struck a deal on the transition period before Britain leaves the EU, one of the many unanswered questions surrounds food and trade – whether the government will prioritise cheap imported food for consumers, or safeguard the nation’s farmers by imposing “protectionist” import tariffs.
One sector which brings this debate into sharp focus is sugar, a staple of East Anglian agriculture.
Around 3,500 sugar beet growers, mostly in this region, supply British Sugar’s four plants at Cantley and Wissington in Norfolk, Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and Newark in Nottinghamshire.
This home-grown product, branded as Silver Spoon, meets about 60pc of the UK’s sugar demands, with the rest supplied from imported sugar cane, such as Tate and Lyle, which is currently subjected to hefty import tariffs as high as 35%.
While some Brexit supporters suggest the unilateral scrapping of such import barriers could reduce food costs for consumers, there are concerns in the UK sugar industry that it could result in the “dumping” of cheaper, less-regulated imports which could damage food security, and put British farmers’ livelihoods at risk.
Cambridgeshire grower Tim Breitmeyer, president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), said tariff-free imports could expose farmers to “fatal competition” – potentially putting some out of business.
“There is a big difference between free trade and a free-for-all,” he said. “If the UK and EU fail to agree a free trade arrangement for agricultural goods and at the same time the UK government unilaterally reduced its tariffs on imports from anywhere in the world, it would be a perfect storm that would put jobs and livelihoods at risk.
“Free trade is in the best interests of consumers who will see the benefit of lower prices and the economic benefits of increased prosperity. We must seek to establish fair and equitable free trade deals with as many markets as possible. This is fundamentally different to a policy of unilateral removal of trade tariffs.”
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Tony Bambridge, Norfolk branch chairman of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), added: “We are told that we are in the upper quartile of efficient sugar producers. That gives us a fighting chance of being able to compete, given a level playing field. However, it is not entirely a level playing field.
“The cheapest sugar producer in the world is probably Brazil, and their sugar cane industry is supported heavily because of their dependence on ethanol as a fuel. They can turn that into sugar. If we have a free-for-all and the Brazilians have a few million tonnes of surplus they will just pile it all into the UK market.
“It would be at a ‘dumping’ price and we couldn’t compete with that. It would be damaging for the farmers and particularly damaging for British Sugar.
“But it would be here today and gone tomorrow. If you are a large-scale user in the confectionary or the drinks trade, you need to consider the security of that supply of Brazilian sugar which should have gone to the ethanol trade, and its provenance and quality. Yes, it is white and it is sweet, but there the comparison ends.”
A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said if all tariffs were scrapped, even under some “quite optimistic assumptions”, the likely household prices paid would only reduce by between 0.7 and 1.2pc.
Former Tory leader and leading Brexit campaigner Iain Duncan Smith told the BBC’s Today programme: “The one thing we should all agree on is the reduction on import duties, by and large, globally, is a ‘good.’
“It helps the poorest most. So the object of trying to reduce barriers is a good one. The question is the degrees of how we do it. The point is: Does massive protection help internally? The answer is, ultimately, it makes you less productive, and less competitive.”