Farmers will be like lambs to slaughter under no deal Brexit - Dorothy Fairburn

Sheep farmers are particularly susceptible to a'no deal' Brexit, writes CLA North regional director Dorothy Fairburn. Photo: Adobe StockSheep farmers are particularly susceptible to a'no deal' Brexit, writes CLA North regional director Dorothy Fairburn. Photo: Adobe Stock
Sheep farmers are particularly susceptible to a'no deal' Brexit, writes CLA North regional director Dorothy Fairburn. Photo: Adobe Stock
THE rural economy finds itself in a period of sustained financial pressure due to the Covid pandemic, compounded by unprecedented political uncertainty as the clock ticks towards the end of trade talks with the European Union. Avoiding the uncertainty and catastrophic effects of a “no-deal” Brexit is vital.

This month the CLA highlighted the detrimental impact no deal with the EU would have on the agricultural sector, especially on sectors most dependent on trade with the EU. A no-deal scenario would imply an imposition of regulatory checks and tariffs, and could potentially cripple vulnerable sectors.

Between 2013 and 2017, 82 per cent of UK beef, and 78 per cent of the dairy, eggs, fruit and vegetables that were exported went to the EU. But it is the lamb sector that is considered to be one of the most vulnerable, with 89 per cent of all sheep-meat exports finding their way to the EU.

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Grazing livestock farms represent nearly a third of all farming across the region, and of particular concern in the no-deal scenario is the impact on uphill sheep farmers. Combined, Yorkshire and the North-East represent 30 per cent of England’s total sheep flock, which is vital to the regional rural economy.

Save British Farming staged this protest in Northallerton last month.Save British Farming staged this protest in Northallerton last month.
Save British Farming staged this protest in Northallerton last month.

The CLA has calculated that, under a no-deal scenario, because of tariffs based on UK exports, some three million lamb carcasses will be added to the UK market if our exports are around 2019 levels. This will depress prices, and nearly two million carcasses might not be sold.

Even with a dramatic increase in domestic consumption, and the sector stretching the UK’s cold storage capacity, the possibility of millions of lamb carcasses going to waste hangs over the sector. And with a greater proportion of UK-produced lamb staying in the UK market, farmers face a dramatic drop in the value of their lambs.

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Despite long-promised “mitigation measures” from the UK government to protect the areas of farming most vulnerable to a no-deal Brexit, the industry is yet to see details of how such sectors will be supported.

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Dorothy Fairburn is the CLA North’s regional director.Dorothy Fairburn is the CLA North’s regional director.
Dorothy Fairburn is the CLA North’s regional director.

If the EU imposes tariffs, many farmers will no longer have customers for their produce and their businesses could easily collapse. Lamb is one of the most obvious sectors to be hit, and no deal could see them affected in spring next year when they go to market. Malting barley and beef also face losing their market.

It is right that the UK government has an assertive negotiating strategy. It is right also to highlight the importance of the UK market to many European farmers who themselves will surely want a deal. And if no deal is the outcome, the Government must come forward with robust emergency support measures to protect farmers until a deal is eventually struck.

The CLA will support any new free trade deals outside the EU which grow and boost UK trade, but it is imperative, as MPs prepare to discuss and vote on amendments to the Agricultural Bill later today, that equivalent standards are met in order to prevent undercutting of the UK market with products of lower environmental and animal welfare standards.

In June, consumer group Which? undertook a survey which found that 95 per cent of the 2,000 respondents wanted Britain to retain its current high food standards.

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Any future food imports should meet the UK’s environmental standards. All farming in the UK is subject to stringent regulation designed to protect both the welfare of animals and the wider environment.

Alongside high quality, safe and traceable crops and livestock, UK farmers deliver wildlife habitats and water protection through a broad variety of agri-environment programmes.

It would only be fair that any future food imports via free trade agreements must also be required to meet the same environmental standards, otherwise we risk undercutting our own farmers’ work in this regard.

Britain cannot be a global leader in achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, if we “offshore” our emissions. The only solution is to demand environmental equivalence guarantees on imported products. If we don’t, we will risk the decimation of our farming industry.

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No matter how much we promote “British-made” products, many consumers will choose the cheaper option, by preference or necessity. If there are cheap, imported food options on the market it will become impossible for domestic farmers to remain competitive. As local production falls, we will become increasingly reliant on foreign imports.

The CLA will continue in its quest to ensure that rural communities are not written off as collateral damage in trade negotiations with the EU. Maintaining our high agricultural and environmental standards remains a key focus of our lobbying work with MPs. We owe it to our farmers who have fed us throughout the pandemic.

Dorothy Fairburn is the CLA North’s regional director.

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James Mitchinson