The value of Welsh produce will only be fully realised when Wales increases its own processing capacity, but the ‘Brexit and our Land’ consultation failed to tackle this issue, says Conservative Shadow Environment Secretary Andrew RT Davies.
The Welsh Government’s ‘Brexit and our Land’ consultation continues to cause concern within the agricultural sector as devolved Governments across the UK initiate and develop their plans for the future of farming support post-Brexit.
These concerns are being raised vociferously at union roadshows and Government meetings right across the Welsh countryside as the 12-week consultation period works to its conclusion at the end of October.
There are a number of issues which have plagued Welsh agriculture, none more so than our ever-worsening levels of food security and an inability for young people to break into the industry.
Brexit provides us with a golden opportunity to energise and create new openings for farming in this country, but to do that we need coherent, ambitious policies which recognise the importance of farmers to this country, to our food and to our environment.
I share a number of the concerns currently being expressed by the farming community, and as both a farmer and politician, the manner in which we are conducting the process does seem a little perverse.
To develop a robust, cohesive and productive agricultural platform for the nation, it is vital we see more progress in relation to the UK frameworks, which will sit on top of the independent policies pursued by administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The construction of these UK frameworks will be the cornerstone of the future of farming on these isles for the next few decades, but at present we seem to be working with near zilch information as to what these frameworks might comprise.
Preserving the UK’s internal market is vitally important, but the frameworks should also provide the foundation for each nation to pursue agricultural policy that address the particular issues in their respective part of the UK.
And let’s be clear there are plenty of issues we need to tackle in Welsh agriculture, none more so than one which reared its head last week in the National Assembly – and that is our nation’s weak processing sector.
During a contribution to an opposition debate, Labour’s Cabinet Secretary, Lesley Griffiths, lambasted Welsh agriculture’s poor Gross Value Added (GVA) performance during the past decade when compared to other sectors, citing that as a reason to end direct payment support.
But when such criticism of GVA is directed at the Welsh Government and its failure to lift such figures in the context of the Valleys regions of Wales, the First Minister, Carwyn Jones, is quick to point out it is due to the flow of people from the area working in Cardiff.
The same also applies to our finest Welsh produce.
Over the past couple of decades, the value of our products has slowly but surely seeped out of the Welsh economy – we are trucking litre by litre, cow by cow, across the border and it is to our detriment.
First and foremost, we need to address the ongoing issue with the red meat levy.
Historically, our sector has been placed at a huge disadvantage because of the diminishing slaughterhouse industry in Wales, with farmers forced to use facilities across the border meaning vital funding ends up in England.
With dues currently paid where an animal is slaughtered and not reared, it is important the imbalance in monies is now redressed.
I believe there is a will across the UK to reform the levy – so it is payable to the country the animal is born in – but we need to make sure we bang the drum, both politically and across the industry.
And the Welsh Government can also do more.
There was little to no reaction from the Cabinet Secretary when it was put to her that there was little to no acknowledgement of the lack of processing capacity in Wales, and certainly no discernible plan in ‘Brexit and our Land’ to increase it.
Brexit can be an opportunity to rectify this problem and recapture our GVA by increasing the processing capacity here in Wales – but for that to happen the Welsh Government must wake up and put measures in place to achieve it.
And if we are to really succeed as a nation, it is vital we make Welsh – and British – produce the produce of choice for consumers in this country.
If we can make that happen, the future will be bright for farming in Wales and right across the UK. It won’t be easy but it is a battle we must embrace.
We need to drive up our levels of food security in this country, but if we are not careful, Brexit and this current consultation could be a missed opportunity for the agricultural industry in Wales.
It is incumbent on us all to make sure that is not the case.
Andrew can be found tweeting at @AndrewRTDavies