Farmers are capable of forging a productive future from Brexit but until Britain’s future trading relationship with the European Union is agreed, there is no way forward for details of a new domestic policy that would give farmers sorely needed confidence, a public meeting heard.
At a panel debate held in York about what Brexit means for agriculture, the regional director of the National Farmers’ Union, Adam Bedford, said farmers are good at responding to signals but very few are coming from government, as fellow speakers admitted agriculture was no further along in understanding what Brexit means for the industry.
Mr Bedford, who addressed a room of around 80 people at The Principal hotel at an event organised by the London office of the European Parliament, said that subject to the right trade deals - including border issues with Ireland where a lot of UK food processing is carried out - an emerging Yorkshire food and farming brand could capitalise on new trading opportunities at home and abroad.
“If we can better link the supply chain across Yorkshire, it is unbelievably exciting. The food and drink we produce, the different types of farming, if you look at Yorkshire as a brand I believe it has intrinsic value in the future.”
Around three-quarters of UK agri-food produce is sold into the EU market, the meeting heard, yet outside the single market, British exports could face trading tariffs and Labour MEP for Yorkshire and The Humber, Richard Corbett, warned that even if zero-tariff trade is agreed, goods will face delays at borders as they will be subject to additional checks under World Trade Organisation rules.
Tariff-free access to the EU must not be taken for granted in negotiations he said because for every French wine producer wanting to continue selling wine to the UK, there will be a French beef buyer relishing a lack of British beef on the market.
The MEP said he thinks there is “real danger” of the government being tempted to make concessions with other countries because of a will to agree trade deals quickly - such as offering access for Britain’s financial services in exchange for imports of agricultural produce.
East Yorkshire grower Guy Poskitt told of the importance of continued access to non-UK labour, saying a business like his, which specialises in growing root vegetables for supermarkets and employs 200 to 250 foreign workers, could not run without it.
According to panellist David Harvey, emeritus professor in agricultural economics at Newcastle University, any future domestic farm policy should reward farmers for “environment services”. Mr Bedford gave the example of farmland being flooded to save floods from striking elsewhere.
“To make things sustainable we have to allow markets to work, for experiments to happen, for people to do what they want to do and see if they can make a living out of it,” Mr Harvey said. “But we have to cultivate and civilise those markets, we have to make sure that when farmers are providing environmental goods and services, things for the public good, they are suitably rewarded and suitably respected for that.”
This model should replace existing farm subsidies, he said, arguing that the payments damage farming by keeping families in businesses “which they would not otherwise be in or would be doing differently”.