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Brexit means cheap food (if some have their way)

20th Sep 2016 / By Alistair Driver

Brexit means Brexit, Theresa May was keen to stress as she found herself in charge of the ship steering the UK through the murky waters of the next few years.

FarageThat is all very well, but what does Brexit actually mean, farmers, along with rest of society, have been left to ponder.

Nigel Farage, recently freed of his party leadership role, gave an interesting glimpse into what it would mean if some of the architects behind the Brexit vote had their way.

Everything will get cheaper, he told the Andrew Marr on Sunday. As the UK opens itself up to world trade by removing the common external tariff we will be able ‘buy cheaper food’, he said.

Recalling the days of cheaper butter and lamb from New Zealand, he added: “There are lots of opportunities."

Opportunities for some, maybe. But for pig farmers, as the NPA has been highlighting, this prospect represents potentially the single biggest pitfall thrown up by the vote to leave the EU.

Remove the EU tariff, which currently stands at 45p/kg on imported carcasses, and pigmeat from major exporters like Canada, the US and Brazil suddenly becomes a lot more attractive to buyers and a huge threat to the bottom lines UK producers.

Cheap imports

UK farmers had a staunch supporter on the Andrew Marr show in the form of Liberal Democrat leader and Cumbrian Tim Farron. He highlighted how cheap imports could threaten the viability of UK farmers and calling on the Government to grant them the necessary protection by sustaining current CAP funding levels beyond 2020.

The issue was taken up at a fringe event, hosted by the NFU and the Food and Drink Federation, at the Lib Dem conference in Brighton on Monday evening (which I had the task of chairing).

LDCBaroness Kate Parminter, the Party’s Food and Rural Affairs spokesperson, and NFU president and deputy presidents Meurig Raymond and Minette Batters stressed it wasn't just about price. They all highlighted the risk of cheaper imports produced to lower standards, for example, when it comes to hormone use and animal welfare and stressed this must be addressed in any future trade deals.

There was discussion on a range of Brexit issues, inlcuding the nature of a future domestic food and farming policy and the new regulatory environment. 

But an over-arching theme emerged. Whatever broad policies we pursue, does the Government and in particular Defra have the resource and expertise to deliver a coherent set of policies from the current state of confusion. 

The question was met with a resounding ‘no’ from both the floor and the panel, with Baroness Parminster and Mrs Batters equally vociferous in their calls for the Government to step up its game - or face years of turmoil.

Voice heard

But linked to this was the equally pressing question of how the food and farming industry, against all the competing interests, political and economic, was going to make its voice heard amongst the clamour.

Responding to doubters in the audience and pleadings from Lib Dem politicians to get on to the front foot, Mrs Batters was adamant the NFU was gearing up be that voice.

Her message: The NFU might not have liked the outcome of the vote, but it had opened up opportunities, as well as threats, for the farming sector and the NFU was up for the challenge.

As, of course, is NPA, which has already made its feelings known to Defra Ministers, nowhere more clearly than on the post-Brexit cheap import threat.