Is there life after Brexit for farmers?
- Credit: Archant
Brexit might offer opportunities for UK farmers and food producers if European Union (EU) anti-competition rules are ditched, a Stowmarket farmers’ conference was told.
Central Suffolk and North Ipswich MP Dan Poulter admitted that now wasn't the easiest of times for any business or industry - including farming - because of the political and economic uncertainty.
He was addressing an annual trials day event organised by farming co-op Fram Farmers and hosted by farmer James Forrest at Moyness Hall at Stonham Aspal on Tuesday (June 25).
MORE - Suffolk and Norfolk farmers cautiously optimistic as wheat and barley crops soak up good weather"Food and drink are very important to our economy here in Suffolk and I'm very mindful of that," he said.
Although a Remain-supporting MP, he felt he had a duty to deliver on the result of the referendum on EU membership "in a way that's as helpful as possible for agriculture and the industries that employ people".
"The choice may well be between revoke and no deal, and that's where the parliamentary arithmetic appears to be at the moment," he said.
The country - and the farming industry - had got to be prepared for the prospect that no deal may happen, he said. But he wanted to 'keep an open dialogue', work for Suffolk and protect jobs.
Carl Atkin, of agribusiness management and consultancy Terravost, who was there to discuss 'life after Brexit' with Dr Poulter and farmer delegates, felt the UK's non-involvement in discussion over the future EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was one of the biggest dangers, as the UK sat on a knife-edge between the two options of 'revoke' and 'no deal'.
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"The discussions over the next phase of CAP have largely taken place totally without any meaningful input from us," he said. "There's a real risk we could fall back into a CAP that has been decided."
UK produce 'can build markets'
In the event of a 'no deal' Brexit, Dr Poulter cited the sale of Scottish whisky to Japan as an example of how UK goods can build strong markets.
"In the medium to long term British food brands are internationally recognised as desirable," he said.
And under EU competition laws, UK hospitals have difficulty in buying British produce, but that could change for the better under Brexit, he said.
"If we leave the EU there will be a real opportunity for the government to get behind British food and drink," he said. This would have benefits including a reduction in food miles and a boost for the industry.
He would like to see the government actively supporting British produce through such deals, he said. "That's a medium to longer term benefit of the Brexit decision," he said.
Asked what the way forward was, he pointed out that changing the leader of the country wouldn't change the parliamentary arithmetic.
On the big question within the Conservative party and the UK at large - which leadership candidate out of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt he supported - Dr Poulter said he would not be backing Jeremy Hunt.
"I don't like to be personally critical at all," he said. "I worked for Jeremy Hunt for three years (as health minister to his health secretary) and I'll definitely not be voting for him."
On Mr Johnson, he was more positive, although he admitted he was a "marmite character". He felt he was a "liberal Conservative" who believed in 'One Nation' values. "That's incredibly important for Suffolk," he said, adding that he was considering his decision beyond Brexit.
"I think he's probably got the better approach to Brexit in that he's stronger on the deal," he said, adding: "He's probably got more liberal principles."
No deal 'would be risky'
Mr Atkin admitted that he was disappointed at the level of debate at national level over Brexit. No deal would be risky and difficult, he said. Economically, a good deal was the best option for both sides, and if the UK was serious about a 'no deal' it should have been planning for it for the last two years. "If we are going to leave with no deal we still need to buy time," he said.
"Firstly, I don't think we'll get a free trade deal with the US - a real one," he said.
Dr Poulter said he wouldn't support a US trade deal with an unlevel playing field of lower animal welfare standards on the US side, and agreed with Mr Atkin that a trade deal with the US was unlikely in the medium term, if not the long term.
Under no deal there would almost certainly be no transition arrangement, he said, and he didn't believe the EU would move far from the current agreement on the table.
"I think we are leaving without a deal or having a general election to decide the matter," he said.
The Fram Farmers Trials Day in June was held in collaboration with crop protection products manufacturer BASF, seed specialists Walnes Seeds, and agronomy providers Apex Agronomy and Prime Agriculture. Visitors got a chance to compare 32 varieties of winter wheat growing side by side to help them decide which varieties to drill this autumn.
An afternoon panel, chaired by agronomist John Clarke, featured Dr Alan Dewar of Dewar Crop Protection and Fram Farmers member Andrew Williams of Home Farm Nacton and discussed 'life after neonicotinoids'.