Brexit trade deals bring potential threats and opportunities for East Anglia’s pig farmers

Rob Mutimer with pigs at Swannington Farm to Fork. Picture: Denise Bradley

Rob Mutimer with pigs at Swannington Farm to Fork. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: copyright: Archant 2014

Post-Brexit trade deals bring both opportunities and threats for the region's food producers, says Norfolk pig farmer ROB MUTIMER, vice chairman of the National Pig Association (NPA).

With the government's Command Paper deadline and Brexit leave date fast approaching, the NPA has been working hard to explain to government ministers and Defra about the complex trading relations we currently have with both Europe and the rest of the world.

We have been trying to show them what potential benefits can be achieved for the UK's pig sector from us becoming an independent trading nation, while also pointing out the potential pitfalls from any trade deal that puts barriers up to trade with our European neighbours.

As an unsubsidised sector, we are less concerned with the level of direct financial support in the future, but remain very concerned about the future trade deal with Europe, which currently accounts for 65pc of our total exports.

This is mainly made up of sow meat which we have very little market for in this country and heavily rely on the German market. With the help of government and the AHDB (Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board) we have, over the last five years, had great success with opening new markets in Asia exporting what we call the 'fifth quarter' cuts such as offal and trotters which we also have very little demand for in this country.

China has been the jewel in this crown. It is a challenging market to get direct access to, but its scale is vast, consuming 49pc of all the pork eaten in the world. Although we are only 56pc self sufficient in pork production in the UK, the complexities of 'carcase balancing' mean these export markets are vital for the UK industry.

We are pressing government to help us develop more exporting opportunities and assist with servicing these markets as their specification demands need to be met and understood to develop a successful long-term trading relationship. In the UK we have some of the highest standards of food production and animal welfare in the world, which gives us advantages in markets such as China, who are completely obsessed with food standards specifications.

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It should be noted that these high standards, initiated through both EU and UK legislation do carry significant costs, meaning we are by no means the cheapest producer of pork in the world. We as pig farmers are very concerned that any new independent UK agricultural policy does not unfairly disadvantage our industry with imported products that are produced to standards that are illegal in this country.

History has shown us that when we took the lead in banning stalls and tethers before the rest of Europe, the result was the loss of 20pc of our sow herd, as the rest of Europe kept to those lower standards whilst exporting to the UK.

The product we are most concerned with is pork from North and South America. Any large-scale imports of this pork would be very serious for producers in this country, and our relationship with the EU, who also fear this product could enter their food supply chain through the Irish border, if there is no customs union or hard border.

We are asking the government for a fair deal – it can't be right to ban various production methods and demand high levels of food safety and traceability in the UK and then open market access to pork produced cheaper to standards that are illegal in the UK.

The NPA is also encouraging government to put greater emphasis on controlling our borders. We must make sure that we are not importing meat from high risk areas of the world. This is very timely with the alarming spread of African Swine Fever in Russia and Eastern Europe. An outbreak of this or any other notifiable disease would be catastrophic for pig sector domestically, but it would also lose our export markets, which until recently has been one of the most positive stories we in the pig industry can point to.

With Brexit, it is clear there are threats out there for us, however with the right government support and engagement, we can also build our sector, providing great British pork both at home and abroad.

Rob Mutimer is managing director of Swannington Farm to Fork, based in the village of the same name near Reepham.