IS MINISTER GOVE GOING TO BREXIT BY THE GREEN DOOR?

This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 20th September 2017

Is a prerequisite for a politician to be able to balance one’s principles with the winning of votes? One wonders if Michael Gove is not showing himself to be particularly adroit on this front and he begins to fashion the UK’s exit from the Common Agricultural Policy?

My expectation is that the Minister will be an advocate of free trade that will facilitate UK access to low-cost foods from the Globe’s cheapest producers. There is, however, a strong political lobby demanding that food and environmental standards are maintained, even enhanced, after Brexit and the Minister appears to agree; he is going to attempt the impossible and to balance the two, apparently, widely differing objectives.

And where does one find those lobbying for British farmers in this Ministerial conundrum? There used to be a day when the Tory Party had a bulwark of MP’s from Shire farming families but, alas, no longer. That, and the political weight of a now small farming population means that farmers will have to accept what Brexit serves up for them; they are going to be policy takers, not policy makers.

UK farmers will need to protect their own market position by the continued adoption of food-safety, food-quality, environmental and animal-welfare standards. Red Tractor is well established but maybe it will have to go to Red Tractor Plus. There are other schemes relating to geographic origin and animal welfare but, that said, the UK lags Italy and France when it comes to quality-focused designated-origin schemes. That will change as UK farmers realize the full necessity of ratcheting up their standards and communicating the associated message to the consumer.

Trade agreements will allow easier access to UK markets but they will not mean a diminution of what is demanded by food processors and retailers to ensure that their due diligence is visibly in place. It is due diligence requirements, not legislation and regulation that will limit UK market access. Ireland with its QA and sustainability schemes meets the required due diligence standards, but so will the likes of NZ and Australia. They are not a barrier to entry to rely on into the long term.

Increasingly one’s expectation is that the lion’s share of farm support will shift from production-related support to rewarding farmers for delivering upon environmental and quality objectives. It will include transitory mechanisms that will encourage and facilitate change. Post-EU, British food and farming policy will emerge with a thoroughly green hue.

Just how will a Green-door Brexit impact upon Ireland’s farmers? They and their supply-chain partners will have a choice; either they compete in the UK market place on cost with global, also quality-assured suppliers or by raising their standards, be they environmental or quality, to focus on the upper echelons of the market. Will they join UK farmers in a race to the top?

That Irish farming can compete on cost is a grass-based myth. Certainly, a well-consolidated and well-invested agri-food processing sector may be able to compete with the global players, but can it truly do so in a long-term, sustainable way if the structure of the Irish family-farms that underpins it is unsuitable for the task of producing its low-cost raw materials? The danger for Irish farmers is that the processing sector will look elsewhere for its supplies, it is already doesn’t.

For Irish farmers, supplying the UK must be about matching, if not bettering, the food safety, food quality, environmental and animal welfare standards implemented within the UK post-Brexit.

Yes, the QA schemes have met supermarket demands and other schemes have met the demands of, for instance, the burger chains. Ireland now, nonetheless, needs to develop schemes that meet premium-paying consumer demand with the right consumer-facing products. They need to reach the market via supply-chains that ensure that the farm-gate price received by farmers is boosted as a reward for delivering what the market wants, be they in the UK or elsewhere. Irish farming policy must focus upon quality-enhancement. It is long overdue but with Brexit it must now happen.

The UK has an advantage in that Brexit will allow it to develop its own farming and food policy and to tailor it to meet its own Green-door objectives. As the UK is and will remain such an important market for the Irish farming industry, Ireland must follow. It will, however, be a challenge to determine how to offer support to facilitate the necessary changes and to create a level support playing field with the UK as it may not be a priority for a post-2020 CAP. Post-Brexit UK farming and food policy may be a revolution whereas, to be honest, one cannot expect more than a CAP evolution.

With Brexit, there remains so very much to think about.

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