Food and farming will be at the centre of negotiations as the UK carves out a new future outside the EU, Defra Secretary Andrea Leadsom has promised the industry.
Her primary official duty at the SIAL trade show last month might have been to launch a new Government food export plan but, inevitably, it was uncertainty over Brexit that dominated discussions and debate in Paris.
As Mrs Leadsom enjoyed a British meat lunch at the AHDB stand, leading exporters and industry representatives sought answers on the two big Brexit trade questions.
What guarantees can the Government give that it will successfully re-negotiate free access to the EU Single Market? As one industry figure pointed out, Brexit is as much a political issue as an economic one and it will not be in every member state’s interests to give the UK an easy ride on market access.
And, if free trade is to be the watchword for our post-Brexit trading arrangements, what steps will the Government take to ensure the UK is not exposed to a flood of cheap, lower standard meat imports?
Afterwards, in a small anteroom on the St George’s pub-themed stand, Mrs Leadsom told Pig World, without given any firm guarantees, the Government is listening.
She said: “It is certainly our intention to make sure that UK companies will be able to trade as freely as before with their EU counterparts.
“As things stand, we are looking at all the negotiating positions. It is perfectly true to say, economically, it will be in all of our interests to continue with zero or low tariffs and we are working very hard to make the best possible deal we can for the UK.”
The previous night at a lavish British Meat Dinner in central Paris, Mrs Leadsom had told diners the UK wanted to be ‘a positive and powerful force for free trade in the rest of the world’.
“Our food and drink is renowned for having the very best standards of animal welfare, quality and safety and I want even more of the world to enjoy what we have to offer”
She returned to the theme but insisted this did not mean free trade at any cost.
“Negotiating more free trade will be a priority for us,” she said. “Every opportunity that presents itself, we want to seize. We want to see much more Great British food being exported.”
But Ministers were ‘absolutely aware’ of the potential threat to the pig industry posed by cheaper, low tariff, lower-welfare imports.
“I can assure all your readers food and farming will be at the centre of all of these discussions and negotiations. Some people have said it will be given away in return for something else but that is absolutely not the case.
“The food and farming sectors contribute £108 billion a year to the economy and it employs one in eight of us. It is incredibly important and will be at the forefront of everything as we negotiate to leave the EU and negotiate free trade elsewhere,” she said.
“I absolutely value our high animal welfare, food and traceability standards and I will be very careful to ensure we don’t water that down in any way.”
The Defra Secretary was also at pains to stress the Department was equipped with the resources to meet the challenges it now faces.