Wales must have a proper say on future farming policy, agricultural funding and trade arrangements after Brexit if its hill farms are to have the best possible future, says Jonathan Edwards, Plaid Cymru MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr.
Wales is a farming country. 82 per cent of our land is utilised for agricultural purposes and 10 per cent of the UK’s total agricultural land is in Wales.
Welsh politicians should be extremely concerned at the likely impact of Brexit on this vitally important indigenous Welsh industry.
We have far more to lose following a botched Brexit than the other UK countries.
Farmers are a tough bunch – used to operating in a climate of fluctuating incomes and rapid market changes for their produce.
European agricultural support has been the one constant in keeping their businesses sustainable. The European market is by far the biggest external market for Welsh agricultural produce and especially lamb.
Upon leaving the European Union, we have to concentrate on three main areas, vital for the future of hill farming: devolution, funding and trade.
Firstly, if the British Government insists on leaving key European frameworks such as the single market then there will clearly be a need for new frameworks to govern internal trade between the UK countries. Plaid Cymru is not opposed to that idea.
The key divide between Plaid Cymru and our unionist opponents is we believe any common frameworks should be built and regulated in co-operation between the four national Governments of the UK, as a partnership of equals, not imposed on Wales and Scotland by a Westminster Government with no regard for the unique needs of the devolved countries.
Any decisions should be made on a shared governance basis, and by a properly constituted UK Council of Ministers, with a robust decision-making and disputes resolution process.
Our case in Wales has been weakened by the contemptible decision of the Labour Welsh Government to accept an attempt by Westminster to reverse devolution in 26 areas – reasserting Westminster-control over our domestic affairs.
Included in the 26 powers taken by Westminster are vital agricultural-related policy areas such as agricultural support; food labelling; public procurement; and food geographical indicators.
Welsh lamb holds an EU Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, as does Welsh beef.
This is a mark of its quality and a vital marketing tool. Hybu Cig Cymru (HCC) estimates that 25 per cent of the growth in Welsh lamb exports between 2003 and 2012 can be directly attributed to its PGI status.
The Labour Government in Wales has effectively handed over control of this issue to Westminster, despite the warnings of farming unions.
The second major issue is agricultural support.
Since the formation of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), hill farmers have received direct support which constitutes a significant element of farm incomes. 80 per cent of total income from farming in Wales is contributed by CAP.
While farmers previously did not have to worry about the impact of Westminster elections on the amounts of agricultural support they received, they could feasibly now face a situation whereby a new Westminster Government may radically alter agricultural support policy, and could do so on an annual basis through the Budget.
We urgently need clarity for Welsh hill farmers on what the budget for agricultural support will be beyond 2022, and how it will it be administered.
Will it be based on our agricultural footprint or will it be subject to the Barnett Formula?
The third major issue is access to export markets.
The European Union is a vital market for Welsh meat. Some 50 per cent of Welsh upland lamb is exported to the EU on a frictionless, zero tariff basis.
90 per cent of all Welsh meat exports are destined for the EU. While the rest of the world is doing everything possible to get access to the EU market, the British Government is moving in the opposite direction.
Preserving these markets is crucial. The lowest possible tariffs on lamb are 40 per cent under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, and they are far higher if the product is frozen or processed in any way.
For as long as the British Government continues to maintain that ‘no deal’ is an option, those of us who have concerns about the negotiating strategy cannot be accused of scaremongering.
Maintaining our place in the single market and customs union after we leave the EU would ensure our food producers can continue to export tariff-free; that there will be no other barriers to trade; and that already established complex supply chains are not disrupted.
Welsh farmers are rightly proud of the standard of their produce, boasting some of the highest environmental and welfare standards in the world.
If the British government insists on dragging us out of the EU single market and customs Union, and pursues free trade deals with third countries, it is vital that those standards are not compromised in any way and that our markets are not opened up to substandard produce.
It is essential too, that such matters are not regarded as being exclusively in the remit of the UK Government.
As HCC’s chairman Kevin Roberts has said: ‘any future trade deal must take full account of the needs of the Welsh red meat sector.’
Ultimately, any future trade deals must be fully endorsed by our national parliament – the National Assembly for Wales.
Farmers were promised a bright and prosperous future after Brexit and it is now imperative that those political promises are upheld.
Welsh hill farmers potentially face a perfect storm of hindered access to their main export markets and the opening up of the UK domestic food market to lower standard food produce.
Policy makers cannot afford to get this wrong, and with the clock ticking it is time for Ministers to start coming up with answers.