HAVING spent the last two days at the Great Yorkshire Show and speaking to farmers from across the county, it’s impossible not to be impressed by their passion for their work – in an area renowned for its rolling countryside, superb food and plain speaking.
We’ve talked about everything from climate change to food waste, but of course Brexit has been a constant theme and it is abundantly clear that Britain’s rural areas are at a crossroads.
We know the farming industry will be most affected by Brexit, and we now face an array of possible outcomes that could result in either a thriving food and farming sector post-Brexit, or the decimation of Britain’s ability to feed itself.
We need to get this right – and in Yorkshire, where farming, food and drink are among the key economic drivers, that is especially the case.
The NFU has consistently said that a no-deal Brexit would be socially and economically catastrophic for farming in Britain. Farming is the bedrock of the UK’s largest manufacturing sector – food and drink – that is worth £122bn to the national economy. One in seven of us work within the sector, and every single person on the planet needs to eat.
My concerns lie in how we leave the EU and whether we leave in an orderly way or crash out on October 31. Let me put into context what this actually means for food and farming.
Britain is currently the second largest producer of sheep meat in the world, with 15 million breeding ewes.
In Yorkshire, sheep are at the heart of the majority of farming businesses with 35 per cent of the landscape given over to permanent pasture.
While Britons love a good lamb shank, 40 per cent of British lamb is exported to France where it has been voted the number one product among French families. In a no-deal scenario, a new tariff wall will make it incredibly difficult for UK farmers to access the EU market, resulting in oversupply in our own domestic market.
And let’s not forget there will be lamb from other countries such as New Zealand coming into our market. Such a surplus would drive down prices so low that many sheep farmers could be put out of business. This isn’t Project Fear; this is Project Reality if we crash out of the EU without a deal.
In Yorkshire, the impact would be keenly felt, especially as the county is home to so many hill areas where livestock farming is the only food production option.
In contrast, a deal would deliver a very different scenario.
We would have the chance to agree a trade deal with our biggest trading partner, build business resilience and maintain our high production standards, not only on the food produced here but on imports too.
This is a crucial point and we must ask ourselves: how much do we value our high standards of food safety, animal welfare and environmental protection? Our farmers aren’t the only people who care about this – the British public feel strongly about it too.
A recent survey showed that 86 per cent of people want to maintain our high production standards in future trade deals But the threat of no-deal means we face a potential influx of food coming into the UK that is produced using practices and products that are illegal here. This would be a betrayal of both farmers and the British public.
Yet I have heard many politicians saying that cheaper and potentially sub-standard food imports are something we should actually strive for. But the fact is that the UK produces the cheapest food in Europe, and is number three in the world league table only behind the US and Singapore. And we manage to do this while leading the way in animal welfare and environmental protection – can we really say the same about anywhere else?
This is why it angers me that some sectors have been completely carved out in a no-deal Brexit, with eggs and arable products such as wheat, barley and oilseeds receiving absolutely no protection from food imports produced to lower standards.
This is not only a threat to our British farming businesses, which would be rendered completely uncompetitive in our own marketplace, but to the standards we have built over the years and which the public have come to expect and trust.
And this is why I will continue to warn of the dangers of a no-deal Brexit and I make no apologies for this.
We cannot leave on a cliff-edge on October 31. Politicians must do all they can to find a solution so we can retain our values, safeguard our domestic food supply and maintain public trust in the food chain.
We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape our future food and farming policy. The decisions made today will be instrumental in the future we build and the legacy we leave behind. And that was at the heart of the conversations I’ve had this week at Yorkshire’s greatest farming shop window.
Minette Batters is president of the National Farmers Union.