'There have been enough warm words' - Farming industry demands urgent decisions on post-Brexit policy
PUBLISHED: 15:54 03 January 2019 | UPDATED: 16:48 04 January 2019
oxford farming conference
Farming leaders have demanded urgent government decisions to end the uncertainty in their industry - rather than simply "warm words" to comfort food businesses about their post-Brexit future.
East Anglia’s agricultural community added their voice to the debate after environment secretary Michael Gove gave a keynote speech at the Oxford Farming Conference.
Mr Gove said British farmers can take advantage of the opportunities provided by Brexit and continue to export great British produce, while escaping from the “bureaucratic straitjacket” of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy, which currently controls farm regulation and the subsidy system.
But with Brexit less than 90 days away, National Farmers’ Union (NFU) president Minette Batters said there was still “enormous uncertainty” about the future for domestic food production.
“There have been enough warm words and comfort to us as farmers but now is time for decisions from the government about how it will secure the nation’s food supply,” she said.
That sentiment was echoed by leading farmers in East Anglia.
Cambridgeshire farmer Tim Breitmeyer, president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), said the lack of detail in the minister’s speech was “unsurprising” given the continuing debates about the prime minister’s proposed withdrawal agreement.
But he added: “What farmers, land managers and rural businesses need urgently is a commitment from government to long-term funding for the policies in the new Agriculture Bill.
“Profitable farming can go hand in hand with delivering public goods such as enhancing the environment but only through long-term business planning that must be backed by the certainty of multi-annual investment by government, which should include direct investment in skills and productivity.”
Mr Gove said he could not “pre-empt” the outcome of the government spending review later this year, but he would put in place policies that underpinned long-term investment in British agriculture.
The minister’s speech also generated discussion on social media, with North Norfolk contractor Kit Papworth tweeting: “Some fabulous and inspiring ambitions and laudable aims but very little commitment. Think I can see the direction of travel but it’s pretty foggy.”
Hunstanton-based agricultural consultant Robin Limb tweeted: “Empty promises and no real commitment to UK agriculture.”
But Shipdham dairy farmer and NFU Norfolk council delegate Ken Proctor said: “The indecision is a massive worry, but these are exciting times and we have got to look at this as an opportunity. It is all about principles at the moment. I have always been an advocate that we have got to reward good farming practices, both for the environment and for food production – and we have got to get more technology and innovation into agriculture.”
HOW ‘NO-DEAL’ BREXIT COULD AFFECT FARMING
The NFU warned that British agriculture could face huge disruption in the event of a “no-deal” Brexit, including being prevented from selling agricultural products to the EU if the country’s role as an exporter has not been reapproved by Brussels by March 29.
The lamb industry could be particularly hit, as 31pc of its produce was exported in 2017. If the UK is treated as a “third country”, exports to the EU could face large tariffs, with beef potentially incurring a 65pc duty, and 46pc for lamb, which could push up the costs for businesses, said the union.
Imports could also be affected, with severe delays at ports of essential items such as veterinary medicines, fertilisers, feed and machinery parts.
To avoid food price rises as a result of a no-deal Brexit, the government could unilaterally lower import tariffs, opening the door to goods produced to lower standards of food safety, animal welfare and environmental protection, said the NFU.
Mr Gove acknowledged that leaving the EU without a deal would put at risk “real gains” from Brexit such as boosting productivity in farming and protecting the environment.
“Nobody can be blithe or blasé about the real impacts on food producers in this country of leaving without the deal,” he said.
While Mr Gove flagged up the challenges that would face farmers and the food industry exporting their products, he played down the risk of consumers facing shortages on supermarket shelves.
“We are doing everything possible to ensure that when it comes imports both of food and veterinary medicines that we can maintain continuity as effectively as possible,” he said.
“We’ve taken steps to ensure a continuity approach. There shouldn’t be a problem with food coming into the country.”