The UK is the world’s third largest exporter of sheep meat and provides a range of environmental benefits, but in order to retain this stellar record, we need a trade deal with the EU, says NSA chief executive Phil Stocker.
For a few months Covid-19 knocked Brexit off the top of Britain’s priority list.
It’s sobering to reflect just how quickly and entirely one channel switched off and the other on.
But now, thankfully, as the emergency measures around the pandemic start to wane, and we get close to decision making between the UK and the EU, Brexit is breaking through the surface again.
The final technical round of UK-EU trade negotiations ended on June 5 and have now moved to a political level until an EU Commission summit meeting on June 30 when we should, in theory, know where we are heading.
But Brexit has been full of extensions, so we still don’t quite know what will happen next. It’s not impossible that the end of June will be the same.
Not even a fervent optimist could say the discussions to date have gone well.
The best that could be said is they have been reported to be cordial and polite, but listening to the reports which come from either side, it leaves you wondering if they have been in the same meeting.
Are we just playing hardball, and if so, will it come off?
Or is the EU justified in thinking we are going back on promises made in the Withdrawal Agreement, that we are not taking things seriously, and that we can’t have our cake and eat it too?
With farmers and food producers on both sides of the Channel saying we want to be able to trade ingredients and inputs freely, maybe someone will listen, and possibly agriculture will get teased out and treated differently, even if there is stalemate elsewhere.
But that’s me being as optimistic as I possibly can be, and this prize would require finding a way through regulatory alignment.
For the sheep sector, and our situation reflects that of many others in farming, we need a free trade deal which allows us to continue to do what we do now.
I can’t imagine how many times that has been written, and there can’t be a Minister who hasn’t heard it or the statistics that back it up – 35 per cent of our production exported and 96 per cent of this to the EU.
It’s a generalism, but we import a similar volume to what we export, and most of this comes from New Zealand.
If we lose the majority of our export potential while going into trade negotiations with New Zealand and Australia, then we will face the pretty substantial challenge of significantly increasing lamb consumption here in the UK.
The alternative is to accept our national sheep flock should decline, but why would we allow our current high level of total volume self-sufficiency to be eroded?
Britain’s sheep industry is rightly proud that, as a small island, we are the world’s third largest exporter of sheep meat, and that we achieve this in harmony with contributing positively to the environmental and social agenda.
Despite what George Monbiot and his merry men may say, sheep farming is not ‘damaging’ or ‘bad’ for anyone.
What is needed to retain this impressive record is a free trade agreement which gives us unrestricted and tariff-free access to an enthusiastic market on our doorstep.
If this is not secured, then the alternative is likely to be disastrous to our industry.
I don’t use that word lightly, because there are plenty of people of late who have experienced real disaster, and the word conjures up helplessness and a complete absence of a way out.
It will take far more to crush sheep farming on this island, but if we think the discussions we are having now with the US, those we are about to start with Japan, and those not too far away with New Zealand and Australia, are going to be our salvation, then we are surely in cloud cuckoo land and our industry will be heading for a major restructure.