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Looking ahead towards 2021 and our future relationship with the EU

24th Aug 2020 / By Ed Barker

NPA senior policy adviser Ed Barker has written an article for Farmers Guardian's Brexit Hub looking ahead to some of the big Brexir-related issues on the horizon for the pig sector. 

You can view the full article HERE. Here are some of the key points:

Looking ahead

EdBarkerNPAAs we move on from Covid-19, we are now firmly looking forward as a sector. The most pressing concerns on the horizon lie in the possible outcomes from the UK’s relationship with the European Union from 2021 onwards, and what that will mean in practice for imports and exports.

Like many others I have tried to make full sense of the Government’s Border Operating Model and what each scenario could mean. Similarly, we are now trying to assess what Operation Brock could mean for a sector that trades so readily with the EU.

Two areas of concern are starting to emerge – our ability to export both breeding stock and cull sows out of the UK in the event that exports of animal products and breeding animals will need physical inspections on their arrival in the EU. Even if a deal is agreed, it should by no means be assumed that exports of these animals and pigmeat will continue unfettered.

Cull sows

Belgium and Germany are generally the main market for cull sow carcases, where they go to be processed into other products before being traded around the EU again.

The trade relies upon fast moving containers that can reach destinations in Northern Europe quickly; delays at borders for physical or administrative inspections would stop this trade from happening. Around 35,000 tonnes of cull sow meat is exported to the EU, totalling around 1,550 containers a year.

Because of the nature of the commodity being transported, other alternatives such as air freight would not be possible, whilst other shipping options from ports would make the trade prohibitively expensive.

This would have a huge knock on effect on UK pig productivity, with AHDB suggesting that income from cull sows offsets finished pig prices by 2-3p/kg.  For comparison, over a five year period for an average 250-sow farrow to finish farm, income from cull sows ranged between £8,000 and £17,000 per annum.

As there is no market for cull sow meat in the UK, we would also have a significant issue with what to do with the 200K sows a year that would need to be slaughtered.

Breeding pig exports

The UK has a number of companies that export high quality live breeding pigs or germplasm to the EU – as well as in other sectors.

The main mode of travel for these pigs out of the UK is by sea via Dover to Calais. Aside from longer ferry journeys which would be less palatable for the animals as journey times would increase, the only other option is via air which is prohibitively expensive, certainly for travel to the EU.

This Dover-Calais export activity in breeding pigs is no small matter – 7,137 breeding pigs were exported in 2019 whilst 8,813 have so far been exported in 2020.

Whatever the deal that the UK and EU come to at the end of this year, we must be alive to the fact that the inspection facilities in northern France are not fit to take live animals.

It is entirely possible that an EU deal is reached but still requires SPS checks on EU exports. The current proposals in the Operation Brock plans would render breeding pig exports to the EU entirely unviable and most likely see breeding companies move their operations to other countries, limiting our ability to access new genetics and improve our own herd productivity, therefore becoming less competitive as a result.

As we move closer to the end of a volatile 2020, we need all Government departments to be aware of the fact that introducing friction at the EU border, as a conscious choice, will have major knock on impacts to primary livestock production, processing and overall herd health.

As an industry we are working with Government to mitigate and prepare as best as we can – however with such stark challenges, immediate effects could be difficult to offset.