The post-Brexit threat of lower trade barriers and a UK farming industry battling against cheap imported food was the key focus for this morning’s EU referendum debate at the Pig & Poultry Fair.
Sharply contrasting arguments from the pro and anti-EU camps flowed from the off with AHDB chairman, Sir Peter Kendall, urging the listening pig and poultry producers to take a “reality check” concerning what their farming life might look like if Britain votes to leave the EU on June 23.
UKIP MEP, Stuart Agnew, responded with an equally urgent call for farmers not to “bury” their heads in the sand, adding that the complications of making progress in the face of the EU’s legislative structures could only get worse in the future.
Reminding the audience that 14.4% of all UK poultry meat is currently sold in Europe, alongside 19% of all British pork, Sir Peter warned that a Brexit decision would set a trade renegotiation process into motion which could take “a very long time” to conclude. His bigger point, however, was on the threat of cheap food.
“The big reality check is that Michael Gove, Boris and the others (in the Brexit camp) want cheap food,” he said. “They are promising people reduced tariffs to pull in food from wherever we can get it from around the world. Currently the tariff on pigmeat from outside the EU is 35% with poultry on 19%.”
Following the Brexit argument, he added, could only mean pulling in more product from Brazil, India and Thailand.
The strongest counter argument came from arable and livestock farmer, Colin Rayner, who is part of a 2000-acre family farm business at Horton in Berkshire.
“We’re been farming in Berkshire since the 17th century, which means we were operating there long before we had EU subsidies and we will continue to farm after EU subsidies and will farm after we leave the EU.
“Brexit would be difficult for a couple of years, of course, but New Zealand gave up its subsidies and my view is that we can do the same. Even if we stay in Europe, the situation we have today will not remain the same in the future. In ten years’ time the EU will not be recognisable to what we have now. As such, the subsidies we get at present will continue to reduce, while we’ll also face more and more regulation.
“We need to be brave enough to stand on our own two feet, and embrace the challenge now of starting to farm without subsidies.”
The full debate, recorded by BBC Farming Today is due to be broadcast on Saturday at 6.30am.
Headline image shows the Brexit debate underway this morning with (left to right) Colin Rayner, Stuart Agnew, Charlotte Smith (BBC farming today), Sir Peter Kendall and James Hook (managing director of the PD Hook Group and a pro-stay supporter).