by Jon Coles
OVER sixty groups, including the NFU, RSPCA and Soil Association, have sent a joint letter to the prime minister calling for UK food standards to be protected after Brexit.
The letter was sent to coincide with the passage of Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which has now had Royal Assent.
The groups agree that Brexit provides an opportunity to foster a sustainable, carbon-neutral model of farming in the UK building on high quality, safe and affordable food.
But they say the government must include its manifesto commitment to protecting animal welfare and food standards when trade negotiations commence.
Speaking to the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this month, DEFRA Secretary Theresa Villiers said: “Our strong British brand is built on high standards to which we hold ourselves.
“The high standards of British farming are the backbone of our biggest manufacturing sector of food and drink.
“We will not dilute our strong environmental protection, we will not dilute our high standards of food safety and animal welfare,” said Ms Villiers.
The UK Government’s ‘commitment’ on those issues appears nowhere in the UK Agriculture Bill proposed by Westminster and it rejected calls to incorporate regulations regarding food safety and standards within it.
A poll of delegates at the same Conference revealed no confidence that the UK Government would stick to its commitments on food safety and animal welfare.
The previous DEFRA Secretary, Michael Gove, promised a trade and standards commission should be created to oversee future trade talks. The UK Government has now ditched the idea altogether, leading to fears the UK Government is willing to sacrifice the UK’s farmers to get a trade deal – any trade deal.
Boris Johnson pledged in the past “not to in any way prejudice or jeopardise our standards of animal welfare or food hygiene”, and the Secretary of State for Defra recently promised to “defend our national interests and our values, including our high standards of animal welfare.”
The Conservative Party’s manifesto also committed that “in all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”
But the joint letter states that there will be ‘intense pressure’ on British negotiators to make ‘significant concessions’.
“It is vital that we have more than just verbal assurances to ensure our standards are properly safeguarded,” it says.
“In light of this, we urge you to take some specific actions we believe will enable you to ensure that the UK government can achieve its commitment to safeguarding the standards of UK production, now and in the future.”
The groups add that Brexit means the UK can pioneer a new type of global trading system; one that moves away from the ‘narrow and dated focus on ever-cheaper goods’, to one that rises to the challenges of climate change and promotes sustainable models of production and consumption.
The letter concludes: “With the enactment of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill and our formal departure from the EU just days away, we believe these measures must be pursued as a priority.
“We believe that with the right policy framework and the establishment of a clear understanding of our shared vision for the future, Brexit can be a catalyst for the UK’s farming not just to be the envy of the world, but to provide a gold-standard model for high standard, high quality, sustainable food production.
“We would welcome the chance for a delegation of the signatories to this letter to meet with you as soon as possible to discuss how we can work in partnership to achieve this vision.”
TFA Chief Executive, George Dunn said “We welcome the Government’s stated objectives to ensure we do not undermine our high food safety, environmental and animal welfare standards in our future trading relationships.
“Those commitments will be mere rhetoric without clear legislation to protect standards at our borders. Within the rules of the WTO, we will not get off first base if we can’t point to firm legislation which supports our standards.”
Together with a strong statute, Mr Dunn says the Government must also be smart in how it will use its newfound powers to set tariffs on imports.
“Producing to higher standards at home in comparison to some of the methods of production used abroad, inevitably, leads to higher costs. We must not undermine UK producers by allowing tariff-free or low tariff access to the UK market for food and food ingredients produced to standards which would be illegal domestically.
“While the Government is mindful not to add to costs for consumers, it is also in consumers’ long-term interest to ensure the production systems are operating to good standards. Smart use of our tariff arrangements will be a key part of our armoury,” said Mr Dunn.
Work underway to tackle ash dieback disease
WORK is underway in Carmarthenshire to tackle a serious fungal disease which is affecting ash trees across the country.
It is estimated that 90% of ash trees could die from ash dieback disease for which there is currently no known treatment.
The fungus infects the leaves and spreads through to the branches, causing the tree to eventually die. Dead branches and the trunk of the tree can become very brittle causing it to fall, posing a serious risk to both people and property.
The council is taking a risk-based approach to tackling the issue and ash trees along all Class 1 and 2 roads, the county’s busiest roads which make up 17% of the total highway network, have been surveyed.
Trees showing at least 50% of ash dieback in their crowns and which pose a risk to road users will have to be felled. A total of 2,512 trees have been identified.
Felling work will start later this month in Llanelli along the A4138 between Trostre and Llangennech where 215 trees along the stretch will be felled. This is the busiest road in the county for which the council is responsible.
The works are scheduled to start at Penprys roundabout on Wednesday, February 26 and are expected to take eight days to complete with the final phase taking place at the Talyclun junction on Sunday, March 1. The majority of works will be carried out from the cycle path to maintain traffic flow as much as possible and between 9am and 3pm to avoid rush hours.
The council will be writing to private landowners with trees alongside Class 1 and 2 roads offering guidance and advice on how to deal with ash dieback.
Surveys are also being carried out on ash trees on other council-owned land such as schools, car parks, council housing areas, safe routes and cycle paths. Surveys on ash trees alongside Class 3 and 4 roads will follow.
Executive Board Member for the Environment Cllr Hazel Evans said: “This is a very sad situation, but unfortunately we have no choice but to remove the trees if they have the disease and are in a location which poses a risk to public safety. We will try to minimise the disruption to road users as much as possible.
“It is a serious problem for both councils and other landowners across the UK and a lot of work is being carried out. It is important we raise awareness of the disease, particularly with landowners to offer guidance and advice, as well as the public in general.
“There will be a need for new trees to be planted to compensate for the loss of ash trees in the county, and we will be actively seeking funding to support re-planting projects.”
Symptoms of ash dieback disease are usually first apparent in the crown of the tree, with leaves turning black and falling in late summer rather than autumn, there can also be visible lesions above and below the point where the branches join the trunk of the tree.
For further information including frequently asked questions and advice please visit the website carmarthenshire.gov.wales/ashdieback
Young hill farmer stars in £250,000 campaign
AN ACCOMPLISHED young farmer from the Ceiriog valley is starring in a nation-wide campaign promoting PGI Welsh Lamb and Welsh Beef.
Caryl Hughes, who farms in partnership with her family near Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog, features in Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales (HCC)’s latest campaign.
The £250,000 campaign was announced in November 2019 by HCC Chair Kevin Roberts at the annual HCC Conference and will focus on Welsh red meat’s sustainable qualities. The campaign will include radio and tv advertising, on-demand tv advertising, print advertising and media partnerships. It will also feature core messages around Wales’ sustainable red meat production focusing on elements such as – landscape, climate and water usage.
The television advert sees Caryl at home on her farm in Ceiriog valley and displays the dramatic landscapes and natural surroundings where Caryl rears her own flock.
Caryl is a familiar face within Welsh agriculture; having previously held the role of National Sheep Association Young Ambassador and Montgomery YFC Chair.
Caryl has a degree in Agriculture from Aberystwyth University and, notably, was the first person to undertake the Llyndy Isaf Scholarship with the National Trust – where she managed a Snowdonia hill farm for a year combining sustainable farming practices with managing the outstanding natural environment.
Having also competed on S4C’s Fferm Factor, Caryl is also someone comfortable both on film and in the field.
Commenting on the campaign, Caryl said ‘Like most Welsh sheep and beef farmers, I am very proud of our industry, the food we produce and how we produce it. I’m very pleased to be involved in this campaign promoting exactly that.’
HCC’s Market Development Manager Rhys Llywelyn commented ‘We wanted the real, authentic voices of Welsh farming to star in this campaign to show the real picture of Welsh red meat production.’
‘Caryl’s knowledge, passion and experience are undeniable and she is a very credible ambassador for our industry and produce. We’re sure viewers and consumers at home will find Caryl very relatable and engaging in this advert’
HCC’s new campaign launched on Thursday, February 13, and can be seen and heard on on-demand television platforms and radio stations throughout England and Wales.
New DEFRA Secretary appointed
BORIS JOHNSON’s controversial Cabinet reshuffle, which appeared to reward loyalty over competence in several instances, resulted in the appointment of a new Secretary of State at DEFRA.
George Eustice, previously a Minister of State at the department before resigning in February 2019, joined the Cabinet.
He replaced Theresa Villiers in the role.
Mr Eustice comes from a farming background. His family runs a fruit farm, restaurant and shop in Cornwall, where they have a herd of South Devon cattle and British Lop pigs.
Mr Eustice made the headlines in 2016 through being of two Conservative DEFRA ministers who were accused by environmental campaigners of having a conflict of interest over receiving subsidies on their family businesses while being involved in developing the plans for the replacement system to the EU farming support.
The replacement of CAP and tackling the pressures tariffs planned by the Government will affect the UK’s farming industry will be high on Mr Eustice’s ministerial in-tray.
If the UK Government makes good on its promise to significantly diverge from the existing tariff-free arrangements with EU, something which both Westminster and Brussels accept is increasingly likely, farmers are in for a bumpy ride.
Although the UK Government says it wants trade to be ‘as frictionless as possible’, it now accepts that there will be winners and losers. While large English arable farms are likely to be (comparatively) little worse off, Welsh livestock farmers stand as those most likely to be hit hard by tariff changes and any lowering of animal welfare, hygiene, and health standards when the UK strikes trade deals with large markets overseas. America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, and Argentina will want market access on their terms as part of any cross-sector trade agreement. The interim tariffs the Government plans to introduce will, all Wales’ farming unions agree, slash Welsh red meat exports to their biggest market.
After his resignation from Theresa May’s government, Mr Eustice, a vociferous Brexiteer, wrote an article for the Guardian in which he set out his concerns about the UK’s trading relationship with other countries after Brexit.
Mr Eustice wrote: ” I believe in open markets and want us to have an independent trade policy. There is a negotiation to be had about allowing tariff-free quotas on some products as part of a future UK-US trade deal. However, if Americans want to be granted privileged access to the UK market, they will have to learn to abide by British law and British standards or kiss goodbye to any trade deal and join the back of the queue.”
Mr Eustice is now, at least superficially. in a much stronger position to put his words into action.
As the responsibility for sorting out a new support mechanism was handed over by the Welsh Government to the Westminster, the short to medium term future of Welsh farming rests in George Eustice’s hands. Meanwhile, the Cardiff Bay government’s plans, which contained more pie in the sky than an explosion at Peter’s Pies’ factory, are stalled while it waits to see how much it can carve out of farm subsidies to fund its dream of reducing the amount of Wales’ sustainable farmland.
Responding to George Eustice’s appointment, CLA President Mark Bridgeman drew attention to the new Secretary of State’s record at DEFRA.
“We warmly welcome Mr George Eustice to his role at this pivotal time for British agriculture,” Mr Bridgeman said.
“As a long-standing Farming Minister, he will know the scale of the challenge ahead. We will work closely with him to help achieve the full potential of the rural economy.”
NSA Chief Executive Phil Stocker also drew attention to Mr Eustice’s ministerial experience, saying “We hope to continue our strong working relationship with him as agricultural policy evolves in the future as we enter into new farming support schemes and trade arrangements.”
TFA Chief Executive, George Dunn was enthusiastic about the appointment
Mr Dunn said: “It’s great to have a Secretary of State at DEFRA who really wanted the role. George Eustice has the depth of experience, enthusiasm, passion and ideas to really make a difference in this role at such a crucial time for the farming industry as we move into a brand-new policy era.
“George has been particularly mindful of the needs of the tenanted sector of agriculture and we look forward to working with him in his promoted role.”
While NFU-Cymru President John Davies congratulated Mr Eustice about his promotion, he also sounded a note of caution.
Mr Davies said: “The new Secretary of State will have a vital role to play in ensuring the industry can capitalise on the new opportunities afforded to us now the UK has left the European Union. As we embark on this new era, we urge the new Secretary of State to work with his colleagues in the new UK Government Cabinet to ensure that the standards which form the solid foundation of the UK food and farming industry are not compromised in forthcoming negotiations over future trade deals. Mr Eustice’s predecessors have vowed to protect and uphold these standards and we would welcome his commitment to reinforce this pledge at the earliest opportunity.”
John Davies continued: “NFU Cymru is keen to meet with Mr Eustice in the coming weeks to outline our vision for a productive, progressive and profitable food and farming industry in Wales and the role that the UK Government can play in helping us to realise our vision.
“The union’s officeholder team and staff have met with Mr Eustice on several occasions in his previous capacity as Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. We look forward to continuing that good working relationship.”
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