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In a frank and wide-ranging talk NFU President Minette Batters shared deep insights into the process of negotiating the best position for UK farming in the Brexit process at a well-attended Luncheon following the Club’s AGM in London.
Speaking to a room of influential industry representatives, who noted her openness and transparency about the scale of the coming changes, Ms Betters reflected on meeting Prime Minister Theresa May, the huge support of European farm leaders and Ireland’s pivotal role.
With rule books ‘shredded, thrown up in the air and everyone watching to see who caught them’, farming needed to recognise the enormity of what was at stake, and unite, she stressed.
Enhanced support payments and improved prices, largely thanks to currency, meant many farmers felt it would all ‘work out fine’. “There are risks and there are opportunities,” Ms Batters agreed, “but one thing is for sure, and that is that we are going to see huge change.”
A crash out of the EU to WTO rules would be “Armageddon”. Although it made no economic sense it was a possibility. Eternal transition, with years of uncertainty, was likely. It could be five or six years before effects hit farmers, and 10-15 years before trade deals were closed with the US, Mercosur and others. What happened now would set farming’s agenda for decades to come. BPS was unlikely to continue.
European farm leaders wanted a deal, because they wanted access to UK markets. But they had contingency plans too. Irish beef and dairy products displaced from the UK were a big fear. Indeed, Ireland was at the heart of negotiations, with Commissioner Hogan’s pivotal role, the Irish border and DUP vote all key.
Ms Batters was ‘hugely concerned’ that whilst Mr Gove stressed there would be no compromise of UK standards, imports needed to meet the same standards. UK farming could not become a National Park, suspended in aspic, sustained by Government support, and supplying artisan food to a specification only the affluent could afford.
Production standards were an NFU red line. “We do not expect to be an industry sacrificed on the altar of trade deals. We want British farmers and growers to be the suppliers of first choice to the home market. And we expect imports to abide by the same rules.”
Sweden suffered hugely when it raised production standards, she said. Self-sufficiency tumbled, as domestic producers became uncompetitive and lower standard imports flooded in. Government initiatives were now seeking to rebuild self-sufficiency.