OPINION: Seeds of concern for farmers over post-Brexit border plans

Charles Hesketh of NFU East Anglia

National Farmers' Union Suffolk county adviser Charles Hesketh leads on horticulture and potato issues for the NFU in East Anglia - Credit: NFU

The New Year will bring a raft of new measures which will affect East Anglia's horticultural growers and traders, writes NFU Suffolk county adviser Charles Hesketh.

Whatever the outcome of those last-minute UK and EU trade negotiations, importers and exporters of fresh produce were already preparing for significant changes in the way business is conducted with our European neighbours.

The APHA, the government agency which safeguards animal and plant health, has been busy recruiting an additional 200 plant health inspectors to handle the complex series of checks and paperwork that will be required for all imported plants, seeds, fruit and veg from the EU on arrival in the UK.

In January, plants and seeds must have a phytosanitary certificate and inspection at point of destination. From April this will be extended to include all fruit, veg and cut flowers and, by July, all of these will have to be inspected at the border.

Defra is ambitious in its expansion to be able to accommodate this with rapid set up of further diagnostics labs and new IT systems, while promising to inspect all consignments within four hours of being notified, seven days a week.

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The potential here for something to go wrong, however, is very concerning for those who rely on just-in-time deliveries of goods. Such a new system has not been stress-tested in full and it just takes a few teething problems for, in the worst case scenario, truckloads of cut flowers, a perishable and temperature sensitive product, to spoil.

By July, these growers and trading businesses, in addition to getting to grips with new software, must understand additional inspection fees, potentially a new tariff structure and possibly a loss of market access for exports.

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Seed potatoes, for example, are among a list of reproductive plant material and prohibited plants that cannot be exported to the EU until we gain third country equivalence.

An equivalence application process is ongoing so we can get this trading status but, in the short term, there will be a shock and adjustment to many horticulture businesses.

We have many iconic fruit and vegetable business across Norfolk and Suffolk, some of which are multi-generational family businesses, built into well-known supermarket brands.

They rely on the supply of these young plants, often propagated in Holland, to fill fields, polytunnels and glasshouses.

Many of these businesses have made enormous investments into robotics and automation.

Just last year I visited a glasshouse where self-driving trollies were guiding themselves between the glasshouse pickers and the packhouse.

We also have some of the best research facilities arguably in the world looking into plant research, training and genetics in our region.

I’ve heard from many of these businesses, whose additional concerns range from access to seasonal labour, to water security and trade uncertainty. 

So what do we need to help the situation? We need the government to take financial liability for impacts on plant quality and productivity caused by poor service level, a smart risk-based approach to inspections, a suspension of inspection fees and clear and consistent communication.

It would also help if we could have all inspections at point of delivery rather than the border. Surely busy ports such as Felixstowe would be in favour of this as well?

There are some significant hurdles to overcome but there are also opportunities to increase domestic production of fruit and veg, something the NFU has long been calling for. 

This year we have seen two new large tomato glasshouses harvest their first crops in Norfolk and Suffolk, farm shops have proved their worth during the Covid pandemic, provenance and buying local has gained traction and ready meal consumption is down, owing to more families cooking fresh ingredients at home. 

While many of our fresh produce growers and business will undoubtedly be in for a challenging start to 2021, we can all help by buying local and buying British.

  • Charles Hesketh leads on horticulture and potato issues for the National Farmers' Union (NFU) in East Anglia.

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