Michael Gove, recently appointed Minister at the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs, pledged to “make Brexit work for farmers” but his remarks about a likely increase in cheap food imports will have concerned many food producers across the UK.
While there’s no clear approach for farmers yet, he made it clear that UK food producers will have to stand or fall on “high quality food with a provenance and a supply chain that is guaranteed”.
It’s quite clear that our food and drink producers, especially the smaller enterprises, will need assistance to raise their game in Great Britain, our most important marketplace, when it is opened up to competitors from around the world in the post-Brexit era. No sector will be more directly affected by Brexit than our food and drink and the farmers who supply high quality ingredients with provenance.
The minister’s commitment is to “ensure people have access to a wide range of food choice”. As well as producers here finding “a wider choice” in Britain, they are likely to face new competitors in local shops. And shoppers, faced with a greater variety of products, could find it increasingly difficult to identify and purchase food and drink from here. This a serious challenge to what is Northern Ireland’s biggest manufacturing industry and one which sustains the employment of around 100,000 people.
Food NI is committed and well placed to help our companies to develop business in Britain and thereby ensure the long-term sustainability of their business. We have the contacts, knowledge and marketing expertise to help ensure the continued success of Northern Ireland food and drink in Britain. What we need to achieve this is greater support, particularly in terms of funding.
The talk of greater opportunities in the global marketplace means very little to most of the smaller enterprises which dominate the food and drink industry here. The emerging trade deals being talked about in Westminster could even take up to 10 years to finalise. Little comfort for an industry that could see its key home market in Britain undermined.
Some of our smaller companies have gained a foothold in EU markets that are easily accessed such as the Netherlands, which will be threatened by a so-called ‘hard’ Brexit ending tariff-free access to the EU. Bigger companies especially meat processors, as well as their farm suppliers, could also be hit by such a withdrawal. The government appears committed to a complete withdrawal from these markets through its determination to end membership both of the single market and the customs union.
The EU is an important market for red meat exports, which makes the retention of tariff-free access to this huge market essential. Other international markets especially China and the US are not available at this stage and will be highly competitive when eventually they open their ports to us.
A priority for Northern Ireland must be to ensure sufficient resources to help our companies grow in Britain, the most accessible market for smaller businesses. We set out our stall in our Taste the Greatest strategy document which aims to ensure the continuing success of the industry here by stepping up initiatives that ensure consumers are able to identify and purchase more local products and to achieve ‘standout’ recognition in Britain for our products. Greater sales here and in Britain will have a very positive impact on producers and farmers