The Covid-19 pandemic has held the attention of the world since January, but as the UK stumbles towards the end of the Brexit transition period, there is an urgent need to refocus.
Last year, when everyone expected Brexit to happen with an immediate impact, many lamb producers rushed to sell their stock, sending prices downwards.
This year, the season has been kind and many lambs have done exceptionally well, so increased slaughterings are likely to happen before the impact of Brexit takes effect.
Store lambs being bought now will however, theoretically, be the first to be affected by new trade terms.
But with lamb prices up around 20 per cent on the year, and the noise of the pandemic still all around, few farmers have been thinking ahead to this.
That was at least, until the announcement a couple of weeks ago of the new Trade and Agricultural Commission, which reminded us all what is at stake in five months time.
Many of us were quick to celebrate what the farming unions and wider industry had been pushing for – a body that would ensure the Government maintained strong food and farming standards in trade negotiations and promote the interests of British farming at home and abroad.
That was until we realised who was on the commission.
As a former Tesco executive, the committee’s chair, Tim Smith, no doubt has huge retail and trade experience- but is he going to fight for the interests of British farmers?
Yes, there are one or two retailers who are very supportive of home-grown produce, but there are others who are not – and unfortunately they have the biggest market share.
Retail, after all, is a volume-based game and the race to the bottom on price is still very much alive. With the pandemic putting a financial squeeze on consumers, that race is only going to get faster.
In this context, greater access to cheaper meat from abroad might look very appealing.
So we can only hope that Tim Smith’s appointment does not lead the committee to support retailer interest over those of British farmers.
As for the inclusion of Sir Lockwood Smith on the committee, a former New Zealand minister of trade and agriculture, and former high commissioner to the UK, he of course has huge experience in transitioning a country away from farming support.
Trade and Agriculture Commission
But given the threat from New Zealand’s sheep industry to our own, we have to wonder how his influence will play out when our two countries enter trade talks. The purpose of such a committee should of course be to protect our own farmers’ interests.
With that in mind, I cannot help but wonder why there is only one farmer on the committee. The four farming unions of each nation are represented, but where is the real, ground-level experience from those who’s lives will actually be affected?
Much has been said about the need to protect our world-class food and farming standards, and rightly so.
But a bigger threat, particularly for the sheep industry, may be the loss of our vibrant export trade.
Foreign buyers who compete with domestic ones, are what help maintain farm gate prices and keep retailers and processors on their toes.
Losing our EU markets would leave livestock farmers exposed to retailers without competition.
The family farm is most at risk from non-favourable trade terms, and is often overlooked by retailers who want to buy in bulk from bigger producers.
Yet the dedication and generational experience of family farms are the very backbone of Scottish agriculture and many communities. We lose them at our peril.
Farmers have shown themselves to be hugely adaptable and critical players during the pandemic. With that under our belts, now is the time to refocus on what lies ahead after December 30.
That starts with scrutinising Government and the new Trade and Agriculture committee to ensure the interests of our farmers are upheld. Lets watch this space like hawks.