The NFU has said the Government has ‘severely undermined’ the British farming industry by confirming it will remove tariff safeguards for key sectors including grains, eggs and certain dairy products
Farming groups have warned the British farming industry has been ‘severely undermined’ after the Government confirmed it would remove tariff safeguards on a number of key agricultural sectors.
Under the Government’s temporary tariff regime, British businesses will not pay tariffs on imports for the majority of goods if the UK leaves the EU without a deal.
88 per cent of total imports to the UK by value would be eligible for tariff free access.
Trade Policy Minister Conor Burns said: “The UK will be leaving the EU on 31 October and we are working with businesses to ensure the UK is ready to trade from day one.
“Our temporary tariff regime will support the UK economy as a whole, helping British businesses to trade and opening up opportunities for business to import the best goods from around the world at the best prices for British consumers.
“The UK is a free trading nation and British business is in a strong position to compete in an open, free-trading environment.”
The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) said it was disillusioned by the revised import tariff schedule.
UFU president Ivor Ferguson said it put farmers and consumers ‘at risk’.
“The UK presently imports around 40 per cent of its food requirements with approximately 70 per cent of this currently imported duty free from the rest of the EU,” he said.
“We accept the importance of ensuring food prices remain stable for consumers in a no-deal situation, however, sacrificing the farming industry and increasing reliance on imports is not the way to do it. Additionally, these tariff proposals will not necessarily guarantee cheaper food.”
He added the UK was a world-class producer of agri-food but needed a level playing field.
“A combination of losing access to key trading partners while opening up our markets would be potentially disastrous.”
Mr Ferguson said farming families were left in fear of what could happen to their business if a no-deal Brexit occurs and repeated calls for reciprocal tariffs.
“Whatever the EU applies, the UK should apply in return," he added.
NFU president Minette Batters said the Prime Minister had missed a ‘real opportunity to back British farmers’.
“Instead we will see – from day one – farm businesses facing new, high tariffs on much of the 60 per cent of our exports that go into the EU, while tariffs on goods coming into the UK will be set far, far lower and in many cases won’t be applied at all,” she said.
“In particular, British egg farmers, British cereal farmers, our horticultural growers and many of our dairy farmers will have zero protection against cheap imports coming in from around the world.”
She added without tariff productions there was a danger of opening up the UK to imported food which would be illegal to produce in the UK, produced at a lower cost which could flood the UK market.
Ms Batters said this could be terrible news for farmers and consumers.
She added while it was important Government manages prices for consumers, tariffs have very little impact on retail prices but did impact on the viability of farm businesses.
“Farmers are going to feel betrayed by this government’s failure to act now in making sure that all that can be done is being done to help mitigate the damaging effects of a no-deal Brexit.
“I do not recall anyone selling a vision of post-Brexit Britain as one involving lower standard food filling shop shelves while British farmers, the guardians of our cherished countryside, go out of business.”
NFU Scotland president Andrew McCornick said it was hugely disappointing warnings from the unions had been ignored.
“Setting a low or zero tariff rate on the importation of key agricultural products, like cereals, eggs, pork, fruit and veg and some dairy produce will place many of our farmers at a significant disadvantage and undermine any efforts to negotiate new trade arrangements,” he said.
He added the proposals meant Scotland’s world-leading standards would be undermined while Scottish exports faced the prospect of crippling tariffs.
“When we have the ambition to double the size of the farming, food and drink industry in Scotland to £30 billion, the tariff schedule, as proposed by the Government, would place that ambition in jeopardy.”
The Farmers Union of Wales (FUW) said the failure to increase the tariff rates which would apply for imports of agricultural products from the rest of the world was an ‘own goal’, both in terms of the UK’s negotiating position and a failure to protect farmers.
FUW president Glyn Roberts highlighted the tariffs meant cheddar exports would face a 57 per cent tariff whilst importers only faced a 7 per cent tariff and beef exporters faced a 70 per cent tariff compared with a 37 per cent import tariff, with the first 124,000 tonnes tariff free.
“The FUW and other organisations have written repeatedly to Defra ministers since February highlighting the fact that Welsh and UK producers would be undermined if tariff levels were set at zero or low levels, but these warnings have been ignored,” he added.
“Setting low import tariffs and high Tariff Rate Quotas (TRQs) [the total tonnage below which no tariff charges apply] before entering negotiations with other countries also undermines our negotiating position.
“It is like choosing to take a pen-knife to a gun-fight.”
FUW also highlighted UK trade envoy Andrew Percy MP, who quit in protest earlier this year after the UK Government decision to scrap or slash tariffs was thought to have led to Canada refusing to reach a draft trade deal with the UK.
Mr Roberts added the failure to revise tariffs was ‘yet another own goal’ by the Government throwing away negotiating capital and ‘a further failure to protect Welsh and UK farmers against low quality imports’.
Dairy UK said it did not do enough to recognise the real and imminent danger of a no deal Brexit to the sector.
It said a large majority of UK dairy exports went to the EU but these would face ‘cripplingly high’ WTO tariffs, making them uncompetitive. As a result, this would flood the UK market with the potential of huge farmgate price collapses.
Though the Government has committed to placing tariffs on selected imports, they do not cover all dairy foods and would be ‘simply too low’ to offer a level playing field meaning EU exporters and countries outside the EU would be able to access the UK market.
Chief Executive of Dairy UK Dr Judith Bryans said they had repeatedly voiced its concerns to the Government and it was time for them to start listening.
“Our preference is a deal. One which allows us to have open frictionless trade with our largest export customer, the EU.
“If that does not happen the Government needs to impose reciprocal tariffs to level the playing field and put in place a package of mitigation measures, before businesses are pushed to the wall.”
The National Pig Association (NPA) warned of a ‘perfect storm’ after the Government rejected calls to review import tariffs, saying it would force UK pig farmers out of business and open the flood.
Tariffs on imports would equate to around 3-5 per cent with minimal impact on importers around the world.
Currently, as a member of the EU, the UK has tariffs of up to 45 per cent on pork imports from the rest of the world.
And exports would also incur ‘stiff EU tariffs’.
Adding to the industry’s concerns, NPA highlighted reports International Trade Secretary Liz Truss will press for a lowering of food standards to facilitate a future trade deal with the US.
NPA chairman Richard Lister warned Government not to sacrifice the pig sector in pursuit of cheap food and trade deals.
“A no deal is currently looking like a very scary prospect for the pig industry,” he added.
“UK pork production would be seriously and irrevocably damaged in this scenario as producers are forced out of business and production is exported abroad.
"Consumers will lose out too – forced into accepting lower standard imported products and no longer able to access the range of high quality, British pork produced in a variety of production systems and to world leading standards.”
British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA) chief executive Robert Gooch said removing tariffs on eggs presented a huge risk to free range egg farmers.
“Removing this essential safeguard effectively opens the floodgates for eggs produced to standards that are illegal in this country to come pouring in if a no-deal Brexit materialises.
“With lower standards comes a cheaper product which threatens to displace British eggs.
“My members are angry and frustrated at being told in one breath to continue to make strides in improving animal welfare standards and in the next told that cheap eggs produced to lower standards are going to be allowed in through the front door.”