Baroness McIntosh of Pickering: To safeguard the future of British farming we must not ignore the 505 million consumers within the EU

Posted On: 
6th November 2017

Former Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Chair Baroness McIntosh writes in advance of her Parliamentary question today on "Discussions with farming organisations about the future of farm support post-Brexit".

A flock of sheep grazing on the hillside in Edale which is part of the Peak District in the UK.
Credit: 
PA

Currently, Membership of the European Union provides a market of 505 million consumers as well as support for British farmers.

This support takes the form of direct farm payments and environmental stewardship schemes. 

Brexit means changes on a scale we have not seen for over 40 years. There could arguably be put forward a scheme similar to that of deficency payments which existed before 1973.

Alternatively, the Government could look to loosen the link between support and food production and reward farmers for environmental schemes which benefit the local community such as planting trees or temporarily storing water on their land.

Pickering Slow the Flow Scheme could be the model for such schemes providing public good. Work is ongoing also to set a price on certain activities by recognising and putting a value on the natual capital of the countryside.

What is certain is that hill farmers and others farming in the uplands and less favoured areas will continue to need support or be encouraged to produce more food such as beef, diary and lambs to stimulate greater consumption at home.

The emphasis must be on greater self sufficiency at home and generating more exports. Many look to a type of deficiency payment such as existed years ago as  an alternative to current arrangements on leaving the EU.

Of course the most obvious support is cost free, by boosting trade and learning from our near neighbours how to export more. Denmark given a population of under 6 million has an export level far higher than ours and has long been in emerging markets like China which we are only beginning to enter seriously now.

Live animal exports are big business in North Yorkshire and elsewhere, contributing significantly to the local economy and ensuring a vibrant futures for hill farmers.

The Agriculture Secretary Michael Gove has stated he wants to ban the export of live animals and yet they are currently small in number compared to trade in carcass and highly regulated. Lambs from North Yorkshire and other upland areas are big business for hill farmers and are fattened and finished in France every spring.

Post Brexit there will also be a need to ensure that animals can travel to other EU countries for breeding and other purposes such as horse racing.

The question today will give the Minister, Lord Gardiner an opportunity to update the House of Lords on current Government thinking on Future Farm support, its policy on live animal exports and the status of the Tripartite Agreement between Britain France and Ireland for racing purposes.

The lead in time for farm products such as lamb, beef, cereals and dairy is a minimum of 12 to 18 months so decisions for 2019 must be made by March 2018 at the latest.

Post Brexit Michael Gove has rightly committed to maintaining the high levels of animal health and welfare standards when Britain leaves the EU. Yet any measures are best not done unilaterally but in step with other producer countries. We must learn from the sow stall and tether ban, when in the 1990s the UK imposed tough new production standards on home pig producers, yet allowed imports from other countries producing pigs to lower welfare standards. As a result, over half of UK pig producers went out of business.

Equally imports post Brexit under new trade deals must also meet British high standards of animal health and welfare. There should be no place for substandard imported poultry from Brazil or chicken and beef from the USA.

The alternatives to secure more exports are challenging in different ways. We should not have dropped the idea of our remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union before starting negotiations. We must remember that the 40 plus existing Free Trade Agreements which we enjoy through membership of the EU will no longer apply to us post Brexit. New agreements to replace them take years to negotiate.

Farmers are looking to export to new markets outwith the EU free trade agreements and relationship with the ACP (African Caribbean and Pacific), new countries such as Vietnam. But these markets do not compare in size with the current EU market we serve of 505 million consumers.

The much vaunted World Trade Most Favoured Nation arrangement would be dire for farmers, risking tariffs, non-tariff barriers, customs blockades as well as even agreeing basic nomenclatures. Imagine the task of agreeing the ingredients of the simple sausage prior to export.

Farm organisations are concerned about the future of farming with the average age of farmers of 58 years old. More must be done to find opportunities for new entrants, for the next generation of farmers who will adapt easily to modern technology and other challenges that lie ahead. 
    
Baroness McIntosh has a question today and separately, a short debate on Future Farm Support in the Grand Committee Room of the House of Lords on Thursday 16th November. She is a Conservative peer.