Pig producers have not benefited from EU support, but they can lead the way in delivering public goods if the UK’s post-Brexit regime is properly designed, says Ed Barker, senior policy adviser at the National Pig Association.
Since reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) were introduced in 2005 and later in 2015, methods of financial support have bypassed many pig UK producers.
In many respects, this has been to the sector’s benefit because it made businesses more market-focused, but at the same time it has left them more exposed to volatile markets and commodity fluctuations.
It would also be wrong to suggest pig businesses have not indirectly benefited from CAP payments, not least in feed and straw inputs from cereal producers who have been main recipients of CAP funds.
One reason why many pig producers around the country have seen Brexit as more of an opportunity than a challenge is that the UK Government can now tailor its own specific agricultural policy away from blunt area based payments and restrictive, stifling rural development funding programmes.
For once, we can design a new domestic policy that is more inclusive and takes account of greater public goods for farm businesses to deliver.
With public discourse surrounding incentives for ‘public goods’, the NPA is clear that pig producers around the country can help to deliver them.
For a start, improvements to the quality of the industry’s pig accommodation would enhance animal health and welfare and help further reduce antibiotic use.
Newer buildings are also far more environmentally efficient, requiring less energy, while minimising ammonia and odour emissions.
The NPA would strongly support measures which incentivise investment in new buildings, such as better utilisation of the tax regime or Government-backed loans which will help producers invest in the most up-to-date facilities – as our competitors have.
The outdoor pig sector can also help deliver public goods related to soil and water quality. As part of a crop rotation, outdoor pigs greatly improve soil health and fertility.
Future environmental support schemes could be better harnessed to encourage pigs to be used as part of a rotation on light land, as well as incentivising good soil cover prior to pigs being brought on.
Finally, we all know of the value and importance of organic manures. If incentives were there to help all pig producers improve manure and slurry storage and invest in better management and handling facilities, it would ensure this valuable resource is used as effectively as possible.
Understandably, a great deal of interest has focused on animal welfare, with many public pronouncements from Ministers about the opportunities Brexit holds to improve it.
Producers, irrespective of farming system, are always seeking to improve the welfare of animals within their care, so Government support to help them trial new husbandry methods or technology would be welcome.
This could be delivered by new pilot schemes, provided they were evidence based and practical.
The current outcome-based Real Welfare scheme or financial incentives to raise pigs with intact tails are examples of what could be achieved.
But the UK pig sector has seen before the effects of unilateral action on welfare issues, and we must approach any such schemes carefully.
With all the blue sky thinking on new ideas and funding schemes, it cannot be overlooked that some significant improvements can be achieved in productivity, profitability, health and welfare by simply improving the existing regulatory regime.
The environmental permitting process is often cited as a key inhibition to business growth, and Brexit gives us a good opportunity to reassess the proportionality of business sizes to the permits required.
Similar can be said of on-farm inspections or the planning regime – which in many cases has stopped business growth in its tracks.