FREE trade with Europe was crucial for the sheep sector in the post-Brexit era, according to speakers at the National Sheep Association (NSA) Winter Gathering at Bakewell market, Derbyshire.
A panel made up of Martin Redfearn, The Policy Group; David Swales, head of strategic insight, AHDB; and Phil Stocker, NSA chief executive, agreed that securing tariff-free trade with the EU was a priority for the sheep industry. Currently, almost all sheepmeat exports went to the EU and the introduction of tariffs would make them uncompetitive.
Mr Swales said although a free trade EU deal might be advantageous to all parties, stumbling blocks could emerge as countries which wanted to see the UK punished, and therefore discourage others from leaving the EU, blocked such a move. He also warned that free trade agreements did not always cover all products and sometimes agriculture was excluded.
Mr Redfearn said it was vital to ’prepare your businesses for an unknown future’ and realise the potential of benchmarking and discussion groups within the sheep industry and the role they played in boosting business performance.
He added: "Technology is the future and those who fail to embrace it will fail. This industry is way behind where it needs to be in terms of technical efficiency and doing what you have always done is not acceptable.
“Member organisations have an important role to in representing you to government, but you have to let them know what you want.
“The sheep industry has a marketing problem with seasonality of supply and carcase balance issues which need to be addressed, along with a re-think on production, processing and product development.”
The panel also agreed there were huge global opportunities for red meat exports, particularly to areas of economic and population growth such as the Asia-Pacific region.
However, with trade deals potentially taking a long time to finalise, there could be short-term pain for the sheep industry in the two to five years following the departure from the EU when no deals were formally in place.
Mr Stocker said in addition to maintaining access to the single market post-Brexit and opening up other export opportunities, key areas for the NSA in influencing future policy were farm support and regulation.
He said: “The sheep industry has a strong story to tell and we want to ensure farmers are rewarded in return for public benefit and public goods, but it will be a tough challenge for agriculture to hold onto its budget.
“We would like to see continued support but geared more towards capital investment such as for technology and buildings, efficiency schemes to drive better practice and health schemes.
“I do not think we will see much reduction in regulation, but we are aiming for a practical, smarter implementation of the rules and to be able to review them over time.”
But with food shortages not an issue and obesity a problem in the UK, the panel believed Government did not see food production as a priority. Indeed, an aim for Ministers would be to keep food prices down, with Defra having little influence on the Treasury, they said.