The Agriculture Bill returning to Parliament this week is an important step in the UK’s departure from the EU, setting out the route to a new, more tailored system of agricultural support, as well as providing the basis for UK farmers to embrace the latest technology.
The Bill must also ensure this approach goes hand in hand with expanding global free trade.
Too often, the debate about trade in agriculture is parsed only in terms of ‘protecting’ domestic farmers from international competition.
We must recognise both that UK farmers already depend upon trade, and what enormous opportunities expanded markets represent.
With the freedom to use cutting-edge techniques, British farmers can produce more food at world price and compete at home and abroad.
The UK already exports over £23.9 billion of high-quality food and drink.
But British farmers now have the chance not only to sell more of the products they already sell, but also to sell products which they currently do not.
British consumers, for instance, tend to eat only certain parts of an animal.
Other parts must either be disposed of (at a cost to the farmer) or, at best, attract very low prices.
In many cases, they are, however, prized as delicacies elsewhere.
Better access to those markets will, therefore, provide an opportunity for meat producers to sell more meat per carcase, receive the very best price for every part of their animals, make the UK industry more competitive and reduce prices for consumers.
As a foretaste of the potential benefits of new deals, the US lifted its ban on UK beef exports in March, creating £66 million worth of export opportunities for beef farmers over the next five years.
Similarly, the US is behind only China as the largest importer of sheepmeat in the world; I have seen first-hand their palpable demand for Welsh lamb.
Indeed, the Department for International Trade’s analysis has shown that a full UK-US trade deal will deliver significant economic gains for farming in every region of the UK, with a £4m-£36m boost for the semi-processed foods sector including meat and dairy, and up to an £87m gain for the processed food sector.
Protectionist opponents of such a deal must recognise that there is a fair basis to compete.
US prices in beef are comparable to those in the UK and EU.
All animal products imported into the UK under existing or future free trade agreements will still have to meet the UK’s stringent food safety standards along with those of the World Organisation for Animal Health and the World Trade Organisation.
Imported meat will need to meet requirements on the welfare of animals at slaughter.
Free trade is a huge opportunity which UK agriculture must seize.
The Agriculture Bill must facilitate that, and resist calls for narrow-minded protectionism which could squander a once-in-a-generation chance.