And the ’vast majority’ of agricultural sectors could actually benefit.
Agriculture would be ‘fine’ if the UK was unable to come to a free trade agreement (FTA) with the European Union after Brexit, and the majority of farming sectors would actually benefit, according to Farming Minister George Eustice.
Speaking at the AHDB meat exports conference in Warwick, Mr Eustice said sector would be able to manage if there was no deal with the EU.
“The vast majority of agricultural sectors in the UK actually benefit from a WTO scenario, that sounds surprising because obviously everybody has got used to thinking about free trade,” he said.
“The reason for that is the competition from Irish beef, competition from salads from Spain or vegetables from France, goes down and actually gives a firming of farmgate prices in the UK.”
But he acknowledged the sheep sector would be the exception.
“We would have to in the short term obviously support those sheep sector producers and redouble our efforts in other markets, such as the Middle East, to new markets for our lamb products.”
When asked how the government would support the sector in a ‘worst case scenario’ Mr Eustice said they were ‘not at that stage yet’.
“Our priority is to get that Free Trade Agreement but if during the course of development of agriculture policy it became apparent that we might be coming out on WTO scenarios, obviously at that point we would start putting in some thinking as to what the domestic policy response to that situation would have to be.”
Mr Eustice also reassured farmers they could be protected from lower standard imports such as hormone treated US beef in FTAs.
He said sometimes farmers heard other countries asking for the best possible access and to not abide by British standards but what really mattered was what the UK was willing to agree to.
“It is perfectly normal, and perfectly acceptable for a country to say yes we want to progress with a free trade agreement but it has to be on standards that are equivalent, that are the same as the as the standards of production that we have in this country.”
He was confident the UK would be able to stand up to the US on hormone treated beef.
“It is a contentious issue but I am not sure that there is consumer appetite in the UK for hormone beef and that is a fact we would have to take into account in any discussions.”
“I think the reality is probably since BSE the UK has been on a rather different journey on its food and its culture with food than the US. We, these days, place much greater emphasis on food provenance and quality and traceability and standards and the US has retained more of a cheap food model.”
Mr Eustice said the Government understood the sector was reliant on migrant labour.
“Last week the Government set out its proposals to the European Union to protect the right of those who are already here, those that are already working in the UK so that they would be able to stay.”
He added Defra was working with home office to put in place work permits or other arrangements to ensure the sector had the labour it needed.
“Just because we want to have controlled immigration, we do not want complete freedom of movement, that is why we are leaving the single market, does not mean we are pulling up the drawbridge and saying no more migration.”