UK farmers should not look to New Zealand as a ‘recipe’ for how to deal with major agricultural reform but learn lessons from a country which saw the overnight removal of subsidies lead to a major increase in efficiency and innovation.
New Zealand’s special agricultural trade envoy Mike Peterson said his country was often touted as a model for the UK to follow as it approached Brexit, but UK farmers had a much better opportunity.
While UK producers undoubtedly faced a future with reduced farm support, they had the benefit of a transitional period which his country’s farmers did not.
Speaking at the Three Counties Farming Conference debate in Malvern (November 16) he said: “New Zealand was in a unique position in 1985 - we actually had our country’s ambassadors paying the country’s expenses on their personal credit cards.
"We were broke. We had no money. But that was a powerful incentive to reform and so we removed subsides overnight.”
However, for farmers to be able to innovate and compete profitably on a world market, they needed to have access to the latest technology and be given the freedom to innovate.
Former Defra Secretary Owen Paterson highlighted ‘wrong-headed’ European thinking on glyphosate, neonicotinoids and genetic modification which was holding UK farmers back.
Using the glyphosate saga as an example, he said it was foolish to regard the potential ban of glyphosate as ‘emblematic of going green’.
He added: “In the absence with any deal with the EU we must continue to recognise that no deal on trade is far better than a deal which ties the UK into European regulatory framework and so takes opportunities off the table.”
NFU president Meurig Raymond argued ’crashing out’ of Europe would leave the UK farm sector vulnerable and could have a ‘catastrophic’ impact on the sheep sector.
“If we end up with a bilateral trade deal with Europe where we have free and frictionless trade I believe we can be ambitious post Brexit.
"If we end up with a bad trade deal then I would suggest that the £3.2 bn we receive at the moment would need to be increased to keep British farming functioning and delivering the high quality food we have produced for the consumer for many years.
“I get extremely nervous when politicians start talking about World Trade Organisation rules and having to face export tariffs and then saying we can unilaterally erase tariffs on imports coming into the UK. That could have a huge detrimental effect on British farming incomes.”
Tewkesbury farmer Steven Savage questioned whether a deal with the EU would ‘tie us to the regulatory regime we voted to leave’.
CLA president Tim Breitmeyer added: “The environmental lobby in this country will drive us in the direction of everything that is happening in Europe anyway.”
Mr Breitmeyer said he believed the 3.2bn of current industry support equated to £8 per week for the average tax payer. “I would suggest that is pretty good value in comparison to the 164 per tax payer that the NHS costs,” he said.
Agreeing with the panel about the need for increasing innovation in the sector, he said it had to be targeted at farmers on the ground.
“There is fantastic technology coming down the road at us and we need to harness it,” said Mr Breitmeyer.
“We need to invest in the R&D available to the farmgate, not necessarily winning the institution more money with the quality of the scientific journals in which it writes.”
Former Defra Secretary Owen Paterson warned against knee jerk reactions on chlorinated chicken and said the controversial process could actually drive down food related illness.
Appealing for a ‘rational study’, he said US consumers ate twice the amount of chicken - usually washed in chlorine to prevent the meat being contaminated with microbes during slaughter - as those in the UK and saw fewer cases of campylobacter and salmonella.
US chicken has been banned in the UK since 1997 because of this process.
“They eat twice the volume of the product and still have better outcomes,” said Mr Paterson, adding the public swam in chlorinated water and ate salad washed in a chlorinated solution.