Brexit manifesto: UK food and farming sector calls to uphold frictionless trade

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28 May 2018 --- As the clock counts down to the UK leaving the European Union in March 2019, more than 100 organizations have joined forces to set out the key principles for a positive Brexit. A drawn up manifesto stresses the need for positive outcomes on trade, labor, regulation and domestic agricultural policy.

Contributing £112 billion (US$149 billion) to the UK economy, the country’s food and drink supply chain is highly diverse from farmers who produce the raw ingredients, through to the businesses that supply them with seed, feed, inputs and advice, to the industries that purchase their goods and manufacture, process and sell them on to other businesses and ultimately to end-consumers.

And all of these businesses will be deeply affected when Brexit bites. That is why they are making post-Brexit demands through the UK Food Supply Chain Manifesto which has been published today (May 28).

It is not just when Brexit comes into play that these businesses will be affected, claims the manifesto. Confidence is already being undermined because of the uncertainty surrounding key issues for the UK’s food supply chain and farming sectors. 

“Many businesses currently rely on a high proportion of non-UK permanent and seasonal labor sourced from within the EU; many are part of highly sophisticated and integrated supply chains that rely on the free flow of goods between the UK and other EU member states, free of tariffs, veterinary and customs check, and subject only to necessary phytosanitary checks; and many operate under an array of regulations and programs derived from Brussels and applicable to all EU businesses,” says the manifesto.

“It is clear that the effect of the decision to leave the EU is already being felt in the sector as uncertainty and lack of clarity impacts business confidence.”

What is in the manifesto?
The UK food supply sector has come together to establish a common view of the objectives the UK Government should pursue as it negotiates the UK’s withdrawal, establishes its future relationship with the EU, and puts in place domestic policies.

With just ten months to go before Brexit, the food and farming sector is calling on the UK government: 
-    To maintain free and frictionless trade with Britain’s major trading partner, the EU, and secure the benefits of existing EU preferential trade arrangements, at least until the government can replace them with acceptable alternative arrangements;
-    To ensure ongoing access to an adequate supply of permanent and seasonal labor;
-    To continue to promote food production through agricultural policy alongside the UK’s existing high environmental, health and animal welfare standards;
-    To ensure businesses operate under an efficient and proportionate regulatory system that is centered on scientific evaluation and that incentivizes innovation and competitiveness.

This is by no means the first time the food and farming sectors have voiced its concerns and urged the government to show “unqualified” support for the UK’s food supply chain and the business of food production, explicitly recognizing their importance in post-Brexit Britain.

In February when the UK food industry celebrated record exports of more than £22 billion (US$29.3bn) in 2017 as overseas sales of UK food and drink soared last year, the food supply sector stepped up its calls for a solid Brexit deal that will help boost exports, homegrown production and explicitly get behind the business of food production in Britain. 

As the UK government released the latest record statistics championing the highest exports of homegrown products – which included increased sales of milk and cream, salmon and pork, among other items – the UK Food and Drink Federation, as well as it’s Irish equivalent both campaigned for a Brexit deal that will enhance food and farming sectors within the UK and not cause problems for the industry.

Earlier this month, a new House of Lords report warned that food prices will rise in the event of a hard Brexit and if the UK doesn’t secure a free trade deal with the European Union, poorer people will be forced to eat lower quality imported food. 

The report from the upper chamber of British Parliament paints a rather grim picture of what post-Brexit Britain could look like in terms of affordability of food.

It highlights how essential it is for government to prioritize the interests of the UK's flourishing food and drink industry in the Brexit negotiations, according to Food and Drink Federation (FDF) Chief Executive Ian Wright CBE.

Speaking about today’s manifesto release, National Farming Union (NFU) President Minette Batters says the document presents a “united voiced” on the concerns of the food and farming sector that produces traceable and affordable food, that cares for three-quarters of the countryside and delivers billions in tourism back to the UK economy.

"In the manifesto, we warn, as a collective, that a Brexit that fails to champion UK food producers, and the businesses that rely on them, will be bad for the country's landscape, the economy and critically our society. Conversely, if we get this right, we can all contribute to making Brexit a success for producers, food businesses and the British public, improving productivity, creating jobs and establishing a more sustainable food supply system,” she says.

"When it comes to the nation's ability to produce food, we believe it is critical that the different elements of Brexit are carefully considered by all government departments – including the Prime Minister who has herself spoken about the importance of supporting our sector through Brexit in recent days.”

"As we enter this critical period in the Brexit negotiations, the signatories to this manifesto will be looking to Government to ensure its objectives are aligned with ours to ensure British food production – something of which every person in this country enjoys the benefits – gets the best possible deal post-Brexit."

Seasonal labor
One of the major sticking points in post-Brexit Britain is the farming industry’s access to seasonal labor which traditionally has come from temporary workers from other Euro-pean countries, particularly the likes of Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. 

With a significant proportion of EU nationals working in the UK agri-food sector, it is vital that the government ensures a continuing, adequate supply of permanent and seasonal labor for the industry before and after the UK leaves the EU, says the manifesto. 

And with UK unemployment at historic lows and much of the supply chain operating in low-unemployment rural areas, alongside the devaluation of UK currency, many businesses are experiencing difficulties in recruiting staff from within the UK. 

This has also been a familiar story over the years as British nationals have tended to snub seasonal farm work. 

“Government must ensure that in the short- to medium-term the industry has access to the overseas labor market to help meet its recruitment needs,” says the manifesto. 

Trade
On the issue of trade, the document says that the right trade policy for the UK food sup-ply chain is one which strikes the appropriate balance between consumers, jobs and skills, environmental management and a productive agriculture sector.

The UK and the EU27 will continue to be each other’s most important trading markets in food and drink, it says. 

In 2016, 60 percent of UK exports and 70 percent of UK imports in food, feed and drink were with countries in the EU. 

“Working towards a mutually beneficial trade agreement is a clear priority for the UK food supply chain, one which guarantees tariff-free trade and with as limited a number of non-tariff restrictions as possible. It is imperative that the EU and UK reach an agreement that maintains continuity in existing trade arrangements as far as possible, including the avoidance of a hard border in Northern Ireland,” it says. 

“Future UK trade policy should reflect both the UK’s potential for growth in food exports, as well as the role of food sourced from outside the UK in expanding consumer choice and value. UK traders must be able to secure the benefits of existing EU preferential trade agreements.”

The manifesto calls for the government to secure an agreement that retains the UK’s current status amongst the EU’s existing preferential international trading partners during the transition period and beyond as a prerequisite for a broader UK trade policy.

The Food Supply Chain manifesto has been sent to UK Prime Minister, Theresa May.

By Gaynor Selby

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