Oxford Farming Conference

Brexit could mean ‘heaven or hell’ for food industry

By Michael Stones contact

- Last updated on GMT

EU membership: should we stay or should we go?
EU membership: should we stay or should we go?

Related tags: Eu, European union

Quitting the EU could spell ‘heaven or hell’ for the UK food and farming industry, according to two sharply contrasting views presented by former environment secretary Owen Paterson and EU agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan at the Oxford Farming Conference.

The choice to leave the EU or retain membership – which could be made in a referendum as early as this summer – was “the biggest historic decision since the Reformation”, ​Patterson told conference delegates yesterday (January 7).

Setting out a passionate case in favour of quitting, Paterson recommended a new agriculture policy, based on four key goals, which would be better advanced outside the EU than fettered by its regulations, he claimed.

The new policy should be based on growing the rural economy, improving the environment and protecting the country from animal and plant diseases.

Top priority

The top priority should be to boost food production. That could be achieved by a suite of measures including: import substitution, the export of high quality products and the direction of government procurement – worth about £2.4bn – towards UK producers.

“UK agriculture​ [and the food industry] is heavily constrained by the EU”, ​claimed the Conservative Member of Parliament for North Shropshire. “Subsidies are delivered through an immensely complex mechanism that could be radically simplified.

“Membership prevents us from working with like-minded countries to combat plant disease and animal disease. It prevents us from doing trade deals with countries that would buy our products.

​It restricts us from leadership in setting global regulation that would make sense for us and our allies.”

Owen Paterson’s new agriculture policy goals

  • Grow the rural economy
  • Improve the environment
  • Protect the country from animal diseases
  • Protect against plant diseases

When Britain joined the Common Market in 1975, the British public was “sold an economic partnership”, ​with the promise that free trade would make the nation prosperous, he said.  

But in reality the EU has become a political project “with a determined vision of a United States of Europe with its own parliament, courts, currency and council of ministers”.

Ditch the political arrangements

Paterson argued that the UK could ditch the political arrangements of the EU, while still enjoying access to the European market and trading freely with European partners.

But EU agriculture and rural development commissioner Phil Hogan envisaged a much bleaker future for the food and farming industry, if Britons voted to resign EU membership.

Leaving the EU would threaten the British rural economy’s annual contribution of £200bn and the £100bn plus contributed to by the whole food chain.

Outside the EU, Hogan said the UK and its food industry would lack the ability to influence food policy and trade deals while incurring extra costs for access to EU customers.

Highlighting the importance of access to EU customers, Hogan said: “Today, the UK exports more to Ireland than it does to China, Japan, Canada, Russia, Saudi Arabia and South Korea combined. The EU accounts for 60% of the UK’s food exports.  

"It could take years for the UK to negotiate food and drink export deals with Canada, Korea and other countries, which have already been concluded by the EU."

While acknowledging the sovereign choice of the British public, Hogan invited delegates to answer key questions about the fate of the food and farming industry outside the EU.

Meanwhile, one conference delegate, who asked to remain anonymous, told FoodManufacture.co.uk:“Who do you believe? Leaving the EU could mean either heaven or hell. But which one?"

Watch out next week for more news, analysis and video interviews from the Oxford Farming Conference.

Phil Hogan’s key Brexit questions

  • Budgets: “Outside the EU, agricultural spending would be subject to the same annual review by the British Treasury as any other department. Can farmers compete with doctors, nurses and schools in such a review? This is especially relevant in light of the fact that the DEFRA​ [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] budget is already down a third since 2010, while other departments such as health, education, defence and overseas aid are ring-fenced from cuts.”
  • EU market access: “Outside the EU, Britain would still want access to the union’s internal market. But this comes at a price – ask Switzerland and Norway. Would the British Exchequer be prepared to pay a price that fully guaranteed your access to agricultural products?”
  • Taxes: “Would it​ [the British Exchequer] expect farmers to pay part of the access-fee through higher taxes?”

Related topics: Policy, Food labelling

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