I have absolutely no objection to high animal welfare standards, but selling them as a magical business opportunity for UK farmers after Brexit is beyond laughable, says Norman Bagley, head of policy at the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS).
As a Brexiteer in the pure political sense, I have always acknowledged that maintaining current tariff-free trade arrangements with the EU is vital for UK agriculture.
For what it is worth, I still believe this is where we will end up – despite the best efforts of chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier to shaft the UK.
Such is his long-held disdain for the essentially free market UK, as opposed to his love of the big state and union controlled French economy.
But for all his bluster, Barnier is not the power holder.
It is the member states that will make the big decisions, and many of them are determined to preserve the status quo with the UK in trade terms.
On the assumption that we go into next year with no tariffs into the EU, the focus will then be on other trade deals, in particular with the US – which brings the standards issue to the fore.
For me, there have always been two aspects to this issue: one moral and one practical.
The moral argument is to ban imports of goods with lower standards than the UK.
On this, I would only say that having listened to Ministers justify costly and bureaucratic upgrades of UK standards on the basis that they would unleash a raft of high value export opportunities, in the face of zero evidence, shows how virtue signalling tops commercial reality in spades.
This is particularly true in the case of animal welfare.
I have absolutely no objection to high welfare standards, but selling them as some magical business opportunity for UK farmers is beyond laughable.
Why do I say that?
On the practical side, we’ve been importing from countries with low or zero welfare standards for decades.
Will this change? Not a snowball’s chance in hell.
So what are the options for a US trade deal in practice?
This would resolve the potential problem of UK prices being undermined, but does not satisfy the moral argument.
Allow these products in with proper labelling?
This solution is riddled with holes and a cheat’s charter, unless we are going to insist on DNA testing of meat across the board, which seems unlikely.
My hunch is the US would accept a dual tariff system, as it will then have breached the current ban in Europe, which would be a big win for them.
Although the UK wouldn’t be in the EU, it would still be a hugely symbolic moment for the US.
On another front, we are getting closer to finding out what Defra thinks of long-term livestock production, with current support moving to a new system over the next few years.
As most readers will know, I have always believed the ‘blob’ in Defra have it in for commercial livestock production.
Although food production is now included in the Agriculture Bill, I am still sceptical as to whether it will add up to a ‘row of beans’, pardon the pun.
The hurdles which farmers will have to jump through to get environmental payments will, in my view, imply some level of destocking.
This is what the Defra blob has always wanted, since the days anti-production zealot Margaret Beckett spouted her twisted nonsense.
I remember 20 years ago post-FMD, when she was challenged by the great farm leader in Scotland, Jim Walker, on food security.
Her blithe response was ‘no need to worry about that, Tesco and Sainsbury’s will deal with it’.
What is for sure is with the welfare and green lobbies in total control of Government policy, UK agriculture is going to have to find ways to raise the value of its products in a fairly serious way if it is to survive the onslaught from less-than-supportive Ministers.
And that’s putting it mildly.
Norman can be found tweeting at @normanbagley1