A group of 42 leading figures from UK farmers campaigning under the banner ‘Farmers for In’ have warned leaving the European Union is a ‘risk we cannot afford to take’.
The new campaign group, led by former NFU president Sir Peter Kendall, currently AHDB chair, includes prominent farming political figures Sir Jim Paice, Farming Minister from 2010 to 2012 and Lord Plumb, one of the NFU’s best known past presidents and a former President of the European Parliament.
Signatories also include NFU Cymru president Stephen James, Farmers Union of Wales president Glyn Roberts and recently re-elected NFU deputy president Minette Batters, although her colleagues on the top table, Meurig Raymond and Guy Smith, have not signed up.
A number of AHDB board members have backed the campaign, including former NFU Scotland president George Lyon, who has also served as an MEP, Adam Quinney (Beef and Lamb chair) and Gwyn Jones (Dairy), alongside former Beef and Lamb chairman Stuart Roberts.
The farming campaign, part of the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign, was formally launched in a letter in The Times on Saturday, which stressed the importance for farmers of remaining part of the single market.
The letter tackled what it suggested were the baseless claims of leave campaigners UK farmers would retain free access to the European market at the same time as ditching regulations, continuing to receive support payments and benefiting from free movement of labour.
It said: “The European Single Market accounts for 73 per cent of Britain’s agri-food exports and gives us access to a market more than twice the size of the USA.
“Outside the EU we could keep all or some of this market, but we would have to abide by EU regulations without a say in their formation and pay into the EU budget without receiving EU payments in return. We’d pay, but have no say.”
The letter dismissed suggestions UK farmers would benefit from trying to negotiate a free trade deal similar to the Swiss model, which Farmers for In said would not cover all products and would not give the same unrestricted access as provided by the Single Market.
“Where we did get duty-free access we would still be required to meet EU standards and regulations,” the letter said.
“In other words, the regulatory bonfire we’ve been promised by the Leave campaigns just wouldn’t happen. In any case, some of the worst regulations, as well as the ‘gold-plating’ of EU directives, happen in the UK, not Brussels.”
Current Farming Minister George Eustice, campaigning to leave the EU, has outlined his vision for a £2 billion Plan B for how UK farmers would be supported by the UK Government post-Brexit.
But Farmers for In dismissed claims made by leave campaigners it would be ‘inconceivable any UK government would drastically cut support’.
The letter said: “It is government policy, set by Labour and endorsed by the Coalition in 2011, to abolish direct payments in 2020.”
“The leave camp is hopelessly divided; some want a more protectionist approach whilst others envisage removing all protection and importing food from wherever it is cheapest.”
It concluded: “Leaving the EU is a risk we cannot afford to take. It would mean reducing our access to our most important market, little or no reduction in regulation, no influence on future rules, the speedy abolition of direct support and an uncertain future for UK agriculture.
“A nightmare scenario, and one we must resist.”
Sir Peter Kendall, leading the campaign group, said: “Being part of the world's biggest trading block is crucial to the future of our farming and food industry.
“Not only does it give us direct access to 500 million of the richest consumers in the world but more EU free trade agreements with more than 50 countries mean we can sell into burgeoning markets across the globe.”
He also highlighted the benefits of EU partnership when it comes to addressing environmental threats and animal and plant diseases which endanger food supplies, both of which ‘cross borders’, while market volatility ‘isn't just a problem for British farmers’.
"I won't pretend the EU is perfect but I'm convinced that as farmers we're stronger, safer and better off inside.”
Sir Jim Paice, who has maintained strong connections with farming outside his Parliamentary career, said: “Farmers have had the certainty of the CAP behind them and whilst it has many faults it is helping them through the current crisis of falling prices.
“Inside the EU we gain from the strength of farmers elsewhere; outside we would be of little importance in a country where very few people and even fewer politicians have links with farming.
“To pretend as some do that we would get better treatment is cloud cuckoo land. Whilst we might be able to abolish some EU regulations it doesn’t mean they would not be replaced by UK ones to address the same issues.”
George Lyon, who as a former member of the EU Agriculture committee is set to play a prominent role in the 'stay campaign, insisted farmers were better off with the Common Agricultural Policy.
Despite its imperfections, he said it ‘at least it gives us a level playing field on farm support, safety nets at times of crisis, access to markets and the same rules on SPS and marketing’.
“It ensures UK farmers are not disadvantaged against the vast number of heavily supported and protected agriculture sectors around the world. It is my firm opinion that we must not put all of this and more at risk by walking away from Europe,” he said.
Jilly Greed, who co-founded Ladies in Beef, highlighted claims from some 'Brexit MPs' that UK food prices could fall by up to 17 per cent if the CAP was scrapped.
She said an unsupported farming industry ‘would be a disaster for consumers, producers, food processors and manufacturers alike’.
It would result in ‘already squeezed farm gate prices plummeting in the struggle to compete with increased volumes of cheap imported food, produced to lower standards of product safety and animal welfare,’ she said.