It’s always a big week for food and farming as far as I’m concerned, but this week is particularly vital.
On Sunday, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee, which I Chair, published our report into “Brexit: Trade in food”. Today, the annual National Farmers Union’s conference begins and Brexit’s impact on the sector is high on the agenda.
As a rural MP and former dairy farmer, I want Brexit to be a catalyst that boosts the UK food and farming sector, re-energising our rural economy. As we leave the EU, not only do I want to ensure our farmers and food producers can compete with their EU counterparts, I want to ensure UK farmers can sell even more of their high-quality goods, here at home - and in countries around the world.
As we leave the EU and begin negotiating trade deals across the globe, we must promote the high-quality, ethical standards, of our food and farming industry. Our agricultural industry embodies the high-quality brand that is UK Plc.
The task has fallen to the Conservative Party to work in lockstep with the industry to redesign support systems, to back our food and farming sector overseas, and to negotiate pro-agriculture Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). The rural economy is relying on us.
The goal of achieving these pro-agriculture FTAs is why our report looks at both the opportunities and challenges Brexit presents. Trade in food after Brexit cannot exist on optimism alone. It must be policy driven.
This is why we’re calling for a fund to support the UK’s agricultural sector as it adapts to the post-Brexit environment. It's also why we recommend specific impact analyses for each of the different agricultural sectors. As well as making sure the government draws up physical and IT customs infrastructure now. We want government and the agri-food industry to approach this task with their eyes wide open.
For instance, the government should give careful consideration to the impact on the UK’s agricultural industry when establishing its own tariffs at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). WTO tariffs have a serious impact on farmers as they are disproportionately high for agricultural goods.
Imposing high tariffs on food imports would raise costs for consumers but our report found that removing tariffs altogether could devastate the UK’s agricultural industry. Rural communities need healthy competition so as to drive productivity, but could not cope with the unilateral removal of tariffs.
Undercutting UK farmers could put them out of business and leave us increasingly reliant on other nations. It would put us at the mercy of global markets and risk relying on imported food produced to lower standards.
Our farmers produce 60% of the food eaten in the UK. Let’s not use Brexit to take a step back. Instead, we should continue to lead the world in safe, sustainable and high-welfare food production.
Now more than ever, we take an interest in where our food comes from. We’re a nation of animal lovers and consumers rightly demand high-welfare. Eggs from caged hens were more than twice as popular as free range a decade ago, but millions more shoppers now choose to pay more per egg for hens that are allowed to move between sheds and outdoor areas.
I've said it before, but it's worth repeating: you get what you pay for when it comes to food safety and animal welfare standards.
Yet, despite this progress, some in our party are arguing Britain’s departure from the EU is a golden opportunity to drastically scale back standards and support for domestic farming.
It’s the hen that laid the golden egg. Exporting jobs in farming and food production, along with control over its environmental impact, is a false economy. If a ‘Green Brexit’ means production moving abroad, count me out.
Agriculture contributes £110 billion to the UK economy, and employs one in every eight people in the UK. With so much money and so many jobs dependent upon a strong UK agriculture industry, it’s vital that the Conservative Party is the party of a pro-agriculture Brexit.
Farmers manage some 70% of the UK’s land area. They are essential to ensuring the protection of our countryside, delivering on climate change targets, providing jobs to rural people, and producing high-quality British food to sell at home and abroad.
Although farmers are relieved to know government support will continue until 2024, the future beyond that point is unclear.
That’s why, at the NFU today, I am re-making the case for food, farming and investment in the rural economy. We must not take the vital support of farmers and rural communities for granted. If a bad Brexit deal sells rural communities like mine short, Conservatives will hear about it at the ballot box.