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Allowing low standard imports would be simply exporting our environmental responsibility

The UK will not accept imported produce produced under systems that would not be allowed here, says Matt Legge, a sheep, beef and pig farmer from the Isle of Wight.

Whilst we have yet to leave the EU, much change is already evident in UK agriculture.

 

Having re-evaluated their own businesses, and personal ambitions, many are now either pausing plans or being quite radical in their manoeuvres.

 

On the Isle of Wight, there seems to be more farms coming to market than I can remember, with retirements being the main driver.

 

There are also conflicting moves in stocking, with some increasing, and some contracting in what they do. Brexit may only be a contributory factor in this, but it certainly is a catalyst.

 

Solid content

 

Being the biggest change since the introduction of the 1947 Agriculture Act, our divorce from the EU has the potential to make or break rural business.

 

The publication of the long awaited Agriculture Bill triggered wide-ranging responses.

 

Many felt that it did not give enough weight to the key driver in our business: the production of food, whilst others comment on the lack of protection it gives our industry.

 

Whilst we must remember that this is simply a framework for future legislation, we must also be aware that more solid content is needed to forge a more secure future, less subject to change through successive governments.

 

Imports

 

For an Agriculture Minister who is so keen on the environmental aspect of farming, it is surprising that we have not seen any conditions imposed on the importation of food into the UK.

 

Carefully scripted interviews and speeches are crafted to imply a protectionist policy, without giving anything solid.

 

‘Protecting our standards’ could be interpreted as not compromising how our food is produced in the UK, perhaps without imposing the same conditions on food produced elsewhere.

 

What needs to be stated is that the UK will not accept imported produce, produced under systems that would not be allowed here.

 

Without such a statement, we are simply exporting our environmental responsibility.

 

Impact

 

The UK is the most efficient producer of food on a yield per hectare basis.

 

Were we to rely on a cheaper, imported supply of food, we would see double the area of land being employed to produce our food.

 

That is more tractor hours, more chemicals and more water. Even without considering the impact of food miles, this cannot be environmentally acceptable.

 

The impact of this must be considered in policy.

 

Support

 

There are currently 66 million people in the UK and the simple fact is that we cannot currently feed them all.

 

This cannot be a secure position in a developed country and we need the support of policy makers to rectify this, with the development of a framework that affords an even more sustainable and productive industry.

 

The NFU is clear that the potential ‘no- deal’ scenario would be catastrophic for UK farming.

 

The EU seems hell bent on making this process painful for the UK, perhaps to deter other member states from following suit.

 

In that vein, one could assume that they could continue to build walls as we move forward.

 

Tariffs

 

WTO tariffs are there for interpretation.

 

The UK has already stated that we want to keep imported food on the shelves and so propose zero tariffs.

 

Will the EU mirror this with a zero tariff on British Agricultural exports? It looks unlikely.

 

Will the EU also insist on the reauthorisation of processing plants, in order to continue our trade of animals and animal products? It looks likely, and will take time.

 

Whilst other countries queue up to fill any supply gaps that we may leave, we must remember that our produce is valued globally.

 

The political ping-pong is frustrating, but there must be weight in the argument that the European markets want our produce.

 

The potential pauses in supply and trade distorting tariffs could have a huge impact for customers of the UK as it would for the UK producers. We must press on for a deal.

 

Profitability

 

We need our ministers to back British farming and secure a deal that works for us.

 

Farmers want to be more productive, more competitive, more sustainable and more profitable.

 

We can compete on a global market but we do need a deal that supports innovation and keeps our markets open.

 

Direct payments are due to end in 2027 and it is our challenge to ensure that our businesses can prove to be successful beyond this support system.


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