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Home > News > Brexit has had a 'disastrous' impact on breeding pig exports, Minister hears

Brexit has had a 'disastrous' impact on breeding pig exports, Minister hears

9th Dec 2022 / By Alistair Driver

The recent YNPA National event in London discussed international trade in a panel discussion that included the Farming Minister and Shadow Defra Secretary.

YNPA 1The impact of Brexit on the ability of UK breeding companies to sell their stock abroad has been a ‘disaster’, according to a leading figure involved in the pig sector export trade.

A wide range of topics were discussed during a lively YNPA National panel discussion on international trade in London last week, featuring Farming Minister Mark Spencer, Shadow Minister Daniel Zeichner, British Pig Association chief executive Marcus Bates and James Webster of The Anderson Centre. The discussion was chaired by NPA chairman Rob Mutimer and generously sponsored by A-One and MSD Animal Health.

Mr Spencer came under pressure from various angles over how the Government’s Brexit trade policy has already, or could potentially, hamper the pig sector and wider farming industry, particularly in light of recent damning remarks by former Defra Secretary George Eustice on the Australia trade deal.

Charlie Thompson, of Bridge House Farms, in Northamptonshire, explained how his business, a nucleus breeding farm for Genesus, had been hamstrung by the inability to export live breeding stock since Brexit due to a lack of appropriate border control facilities at EU destinations.

The business has completely lost its important trade in high value live animals to Europe, but Mr Thompson pointed out that finding solutions had been left in the hands of private businesses and none had been found.

Mr Zeichner said he had ‘huge sympathy’ for his plight, stressing that ‘some of us would never have done this in the first place’. He said this and other related issues, such as the Northern Ireland protocol, needed resolution – but he predicted this would take a long time.

Mr Spencer acknowledged that the Government needed to find a solution, particularly, he said, as livestock were now being sent to Europe via Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. “Government is trying to negotiate with the EU and we need to try and resolve that as soon as possible - it is a two-way negotiation,” he said.

But Mr Bates, who is also a director of the UK Export Certification Partnership, which works with Government on market access issues for red meat and livestock, said what was once seen as a Brexit opportunity has turned into the opposite for livestock genetics businesses.

“What's happened is a disaster,” he said. “I sit on Defra’s foreign animal genetic resources committee, and we identified as a possible Brexit bonus the idea that we could make the UK the centre for breeding stock and genetics exports for the world.”

This included the potential to export livestock bred using new technologies like gene editing to produce, for example, PRRS-resistant pigs, he added.

“But we are at risk of losing that opportunity. We are two years in and the breeding companies here in the UK have barely been able to export at all. It won't be long before those companies think they should move to another country and that's going to be a very, very sad situation.”

If the UK pig breeding sector loses critical mass, that could have a serious knock-on effect as UK pig genetics are unique, for example, reflecting the high proportion of sows kept outdoors.

He said more effort and some creative thinking was needed to find solutions to the border control post problem, claiming that the valuable and important live breeding animal trade appeared to have got caught up with the wider issue of live animals for slaughter exports.

He stressed the importance of UK genetics companies being able to export genetics abroad, including the wider benefits of being able to influence other elements of production, such as animal welfare.

Australia deal – was Eustice right?

The panel was asked by HIPRA’s Jon McKechnie whether they felt Mr Eustice had been correct in his recent criticism of the Australia trade deal, which he said was ‘not very good for the UK’, particular its farmers.

Mr Spencer praised Mr Eustice’s time at Defra, but said he ‘gently disagreed’ with him on the Australia deal, insisting there’s a lot be gained for lamb producers, for example, in moving away from EU markets and gaining access to others around the world.

Pork was exempted from the Australia and New Zealand deals, partly because they are not big pork exporters and the impact would have been minimal anyway.

But asked if he could guarantee that the UK pork sector would not be undermined by imports produced to lower standards as part of new trade deals, including the CPTPP group, which includes Canada, and, in time the US, he acknowledged that doing a trade deal with the country where they are still using sow stalls, for example, is ‘an entirely different conversation’.

“Certainly, Defra will be very robust in those communications with the Department for International Trade to make sure we do not allow that to happen,” he said.

He added that he did not want to see a repeat of the situation when the UK banned stalls and tethers in 1999, about 15 years ahead of the EU, resulting in the industry effectively being exported to the EU.

Mr Zeichner, however, said Mr Eustice was right and highlighted the lack of experience within Government at negotiating trade deals. He said there were often trade-offs within these but insisted that we ‘shouldn't be doing anything that undercuts UK farms and compromises UK standards’.

Prior to the panel AHDB Director of International Market Development, Phil Hadley, shared the work AHDB undertakes with DIT for market access and trade development – a market worth £567m in 2021. Whilst the pandemic shifted the way in which they had to work they made headway with many key markets that offer significant value to the sector.

ASF concerns

A common theme running throughout the discussion was concern over the risk of ASF getting into the UK and into the national pig herd, as the virus continues to spread in Europe.

In September, Defra introduced new measures, making it illegal to bring more than 2kg of pork into the country for non-commercial reasons. While this has been welcomed, the reason for a 2kg limit when tiny amounts of meat could spark an outbreak was questioned, Mr Bates suggested the authorities should make some high-profile prosecutions of criminal gangs bringing meat into the country in white vans, to deter the practice and ‘send out a message’.

Mr Spencer praised the NPA for its role in driving the tightening up of the rules on bringing pork into the country, but suggested the 2kg limit was put in place to ensure a degree of ‘pragmatism’ in implementing the regulations.

Concern was also expressed over the ability of the APHA’s Weybridge laboratory to cope with any ASF outbreak, following the publication of a damning report by MPs on its current capabilities.

YNPA comment 

YNPA vice-chair Flavian Obiero thanked the panellists for an ‘informative and open discussion’ on the pros and cons of the international trade in pigmeat.

“This was an excellent event and it is a real feather in the cap of Young NPA to attract such a high-profile panel.

“It was also great to see so many YNPA members from across the industry attending this event. We are looking forward to more YNPA activity in 2023.”