Opinion: Andrew Loftus, agri-food consultant and farmer
Last month I took to Twitter for the first time. I was struck by how the arguments from last June’s referendum are still endlessly rehearsed by those involved with farming, still bitterly divided.
The country is now moving on, without Mr Blair it seems, and so must farming.
At the NFU Conference last month, it was much the same. Lots of heat, lots of blame and even more pessimism, but little sign of a plan or a positive vision for the future of our industry.
I am not naive. I do not underestimate the challenges. The NFU and others must maintain the pressure on Government and fight a PR battle like none before. But I want to take this opportunity to spell out six reasons for optimism:
- Common sense will prevail and (at the 11th hour) we will get a good free trade deal with the EU. But if we do not, sterling will go lower, and stay lower for longer, providing a natural hedge. This has already had a positive effect on UK beef and pig prices, as well as many other agricultural outputs and exports.
- Some new non-tariff barriers to trade, such as customs checks, are likely, but where we are a net importer for almost all agricultural products barring lamb, this will cause slight upward pressure on UK farmgate prices.
- To my mind, the two year Article 50 ‘cliff edge’ is largely bogus. It just does not suit either side to admit this yet. Brexit will require a new treaty with a new time frame. In all likelihood, certain key aspects of the divorce will take place in 2019, but much else will be covered by transitional arrangements. Nobody wants a cliff edge except as a negotiating position.
- Chinese and other eastern market opportunities are immense. China now has more middle class people than the US, and UK food and drink exports grew by a whopping 51 per cent last year. By contrast, our EU exports grew just 10 per cent on the back of weaker sterling. Even without the mooted free trade agreement, China could easily be our biggest food export market within four years.
- Area-based support is on its way out across the EU; Brexit has only brought forward the inevitable. For progressive and efficient farmers, this will likely bring rare opportunities to grow their enterprises.
- Outside the EU, new on-farm technology will happen faster. The many reasons are too complex to rehearse here so you will have to follow me on Twitter (@loftusfarms), but the Secretary of State has already hinted strongly at capital grants for mechanisation and technology. Start thinking about what you need to compete and let the NFU know. The consultation will be out soon.
If you are still ‘remoaning’ it may be you hold in your mind the stable and prosperous EU of the last 40 years as the alternative to Brexit, but I am afraid that no longer exists. We need to make our own future now.