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Farmers 'left hanging' as Brexit doubt plagues industry

PUBLISHED: 15:45 22 February 2019

NFU president Minette Batters addresses the 2019 conference  Picture: SIMON HADLEY

NFU president Minette Batters addresses the 2019 conference Picture: SIMON HADLEY

Simon Hadley/ www.simonhadley.co.uk

Worried East Anglian farmers say they have been left in limbo after the industry sought to nail the government down at a key annual conference on what kind of future the sector faces as Brexit looms.

NFU crops board chairman Tom Bradshaw at the 2019 conference  Picture: TOBY LEANFU crops board chairman Tom Bradshaw at the 2019 conference Picture: TOBY LEA

National Farmers’ Union (NFU) president Minette Batters warned that a no-deal Brexit was the “stuff of nightmares” for British farmers as she addressed its annual two-day conference in Birmingham.

It was “absolutely shocking” that it was still not clear to farmers what trade conditions they would be operating in or what Britain’s future agricultural policy will look like, she said.

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“I make no apology for saying that leaving the EU without a deal would be a catastrophe for British farming,” she said.

Environment secretary Michael Gove warned that leaving the European Union (EU) without a deal would lead to “significant costs to our economy - and in particular to farming and food production” as he reiterated his support for Prime Minister Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement.

Delegates at NFU Conference 2019  Picture: SIMON HADLEYDelegates at NFU Conference 2019 Picture: SIMON HADLEY

Ms Batters said high tariffs for exporting to Europe could effectively mean there is no market for four-and-a-half million lambs, leading to dire consequences.

As concerns were raised that trade deals could see a lowering of standards or cheap imports of foods which do not meet UK rules and undercut British farmers, Mr Gove repeated his promise that there would be no lowering of environmental, animal welfare standards in pursuit of trade deals.

“We will use all the tools at our disposal to make sure standards are protected and you are not left at a competitive disadvantage,” he told farmers.

However, he warned of high tariffs for sheep and beef exports to the EU, new checks at the border - where Calais currently has no facilities for checks - and new labelling requirements in the case of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

Environment secretary Michael Gove addresses the NFU 2019 conference  Picture: SIMON HADLEYEnvironment secretary Michael Gove addresses the NFU 2019 conference Picture: SIMON HADLEY

Speaking after the conference, East Anglian farmer delegates backed Ms Batters’ remarks.

NFU deputy president and Clacton-on-Sea farmer Guy Smith said: “If you had told us at last year’s conference in late February 2018 that in a year’s time we would still have no clear idea as to what lay ahead when just 36 days from March 29, then we would have thought the politicians were playing fast and loose with farming’s future.

“So this year’s conference was largely about holding politicians to account, while reminding them of the strategic importance of food and farming.

“It’s clear decisions will be made over the next few weeks that could colour the fortunes of UK agriculture for a generation, so it was time to double down to demand a level playing field when it comes to trade, with a functional policy when it comes to the Agriculture Bill and the Environment Bill.

Deputy president Guy Smith speaks at the National Farmers Union 2019 conference  Picture: TOBY LEADeputy president Guy Smith speaks at the National Farmers Union 2019 conference Picture: TOBY LEA

“Hopefully, the politicians left our 1000-strong farmer conference in Birmingham with our demands for a fair deal ringing in their ears.”

NFU Suffolk county chairman Glenn Buckingham said the industry is being left hanging in the air.

“Suspenseful doesn’t go far enough to describe it. As was said during the two days, the whole Brexit situation has comprehensive effects, with tariffs, quotas, trade deals yet to be done and that’s before we look at standards,” he said.

“Our standards are as high and good as any in the world. Whether imports can match them and whether they will need to is of great concern. Will we be sacrificed along with one or two other industries for the sake of trade in other sectors, which are considered to be more lucrative to the UK exchequer or politically satisfactory? Food security is not seemingly being considered.”

Tom Bradshaw, who farms near Colchester and chairs the NFU’s national crops board, said he had challenged Michael Gove about the impact of zero tariffs on the combinable crops sector in a ‘no deal’ Brexit, but said Mr Gove “gave very little away”.

“I understand he was handcuffed by the current political situation, but I wasn’t confident with the answer he gave us. I’m worried we could see a dramatic reduction in cereal prices in a no deal scenario,” he said.

“I thought NFU president Minette Batters did a fantastic job, setting the right tone and holding Michael Gove to account. It’s exactly what we need. She pushed him hard on some difficult subjects, but there is so much uncertainty at this stage we just don’t have the optimistic feeling we could have.”

NFU Suffolk vice chairman Andrew Blenkiron was impressed with how the conference had delivered on expectations.

“The mix of political, technical, market and commodity aspects of modern farming demonstrated the depth of the sector, helping to provide potential solutions to the issues of the day, as well as supporting farmers to ensure that we can continue to produce excellent quality food for all our futures,” he said.

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