All Government departments must be aware that introducing friction at the UK-EU border will have a major effect on pig production, processing and herd health, says Ed Barker, senior policy advisor at the National Pig Association.
Like many other sectors, the UK pig industry has done extremely well in navigating the profound challenges caused by Covid-19.
The more pressing concern was simply to be able to keep pigs moving; pig production is continuous and having an available outlet for processing at all times is crucial.
One only had to look at the pig sector in the USA to understand what kind of problems it could present. But we are not out of the woods yet.
African swine fever represents a global threat to all pig businesses and processing problems are still occurring in other sectors as a result of Covid-19.
It is a very fine line between risk and reward.
As we move on from Covid-19, we are now firmly looking forward as a sector.
The most pressing concerns on the horizon lie in the possible outcomes from the UK’s relationship with the European Union from 2021 onwards, and what that will mean in practice for imports and exports.
Like many others, I have tried to make full sense of the Government’s Border Operating Model and what each scenario could mean.
Similarly, we are now trying to assess what Operation Brock could mean for a sector that trades so readily with the EU.
Two areas of concern are starting to emerge – our ability to export both breeding stock and cull sows out of the UK in the event that exports of animal products and breeding animals will need physical inspections on their arrival in the EU.
Even if a deal is agreed, it should by no means be assumed that exports of these animals and pigmeat will continue unfettered.
Aside from exports of fresh pork and offal, one of the key export trades in pork from the UK to the EU is in cull sow carcases, which are worth about £50m a year to our sector.
This trade forms an integral part of pig farm business incomes, as it ensures an adequate return for breeding stock that are no longer productive.
Belgium and Germany are generally the main market for cull sow carcases, where they go to be processed into other products before being traded around the EU again.
The trade relies upon fast moving containers that can reach destinations in Northern Europe quickly. Delays at borders for physical or administrative inspections would stop this trade from happening.
Around 35,000 tonnes of cull sow meat is exported to the EU, totalling around 1,550 containers a year.
Because of the nature of the commodity being transported, other alternatives such as air freight would not be possible, while other shipping options from ports would make the trade prohibitively expensive.
This would have a huge knock-on effect on UK pig productivity, with AHDB suggesting that income from cull sows offsets finished pig prices by 2-3p/kg.
For comparison, over a five-year period for an average 250-sow farrow to finish farm, income from cull sows ranged between £8,000 and £17,000 per annum.
As there is no market for cull sow meat in the UK, we would also have a significant issue with what to do with the 200K sows a year that would need to be slaughtered.
A key issue for the pig sector’s overall productivity lies in breeding and genetic improvement, and this trade within the EU cannot be overstated.
The UK has a number of companies that export high quality live breeding pigs or germplasm to the EU – as well as in other sectors.
This trade is essential to ensure we are able to retain active breeding programmes in this country so we can continuously improve our own genetics and productivity, as well as those of countries all over the world.
As these high value animals are being transported for breeding purposes, it is of utmost importance that they arrive at their destination in perfect condition and therefore must be transported with extreme care.
All exports of pigs, Calais or otherwise, will be breeding pigs or pets. The main mode of travel for these pigs out of the UK is by sea via Dover to Calais.
Aside from longer ferry journeys which would be less palatable for the animals as journey times would increase, the only other option is via air which is prohibitively expensive, certainly for travel to the EU.
This Dover-Calais export activity in breeding pigs is no small matter. 7,137 breeding pigs were exported in 2019, while 8,813 have so far been exported in 2020.
Whatever the deal that the UK and EU come to at the end of this year, we must be alive to the fact that the inspection facilities in northern France are not fit to take live animals.
It is entirely possible that an EU deal is reached but still requires SPS checks on EU exports.
The current proposals in the Operation Brock plans would render breeding pig exports to the EU entirely unviable and most likely see breeding companies move their operations to other countries, limiting our ability to access new genetics and improve our own herd productivity, therefore becoming less competitive as a result.
As we move closer to the end of a volatile 2020, we need all Government departments to be aware of the fact that introducing friction at the EU border, as a conscious choice, will have major knock-on impacts on primary livestock production, processing and overall herd health.
As an industry, we are working with Government to mitigate and prepare as best as we can. But with such stark challenges, immediate effects could be difficult to offset.
Ed can be found tweeting at @edbarkerpig