Webinar highlights differences and common ground for the EU & UK

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Agricultural journalists from across Europe tuned in to the ENAJ’s Brexit webinar at the end of February to learn how the UK’s departure from the EU has affected trade and relations since January and how UK agricultural policy may change in the future.

The event was organised by Adrian Bell and Cedric Porter of the British Guild of Agricultural Journalists with Cedric in the chair. He was joined by expert speakers from the UK, the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland.

Split into two parts, here is a summary of the webinar’s main points:

Part 1: real Brexit 8 weeks on

Nick von Westenholz, director of trade and business strategy at the UK National Farmers Union

There was relief among farmers on Christmas Eve 2020 that a deal between the EU and UK had been done but putting those changes in place has revealed major challenges and issues. The need for customs declarations and health certificates for lots of food exports from the UK to the EU has added time and costs to shipping products. Larger companies exporting shipments of just one product have found the process easier, but there are real difficulties for companies exporting mixed loads of goods. For some smaller UK companies, the extra costs may make exporting food products to the EU so difficult and expensive that it is just not worth it.

Tim Heddema, Agriculture Counsellor, Dutch Embassy, UK

There were lots of teething problems in January which meant that most consignments of food from the UK into the Netherlands did not have the correct declarations or paperwork. There were still problems with two thirds of food imports at the end of February. The cost and time taken to export EU products to the UK may increase after 1 April 2021 when the UK will introduce checks on imports from the EU. However, the relationship between the Netherlands and the UK is too strong to be changed fundamentally. [Since the webinar, the UK government has announced that health certificates on EU imports will not be introduced until at least October 2021 and there will be no customs checks until January 2022.]

Padraig Brennan, Meat, Food, Beverage director at Bord Bia.

The UK remains Ireland’s most important single food market, accounting for a third of the €13 billion in food and drink exported every year. There was relief in Ireland that an agreement was made, but a realisation that cost and complexity would be added to exporting goods. The focus has been on keeping products moving, but this has been more challenging, particularly as the UK has traditionally been a ‘land bridge’ through which product is exported from Ireland to continental Europe. Freight traffic to the UK is down 50%, with direct shipments to the continent up 100%. There has had to be more investment in systems to deal with the extra paperwork. There is also a need for electronic systems to checking and monitor exports and imports.

Part 2: Future UK agricultural policy

The UK and EU are taking different agricultural policy paths. The EU’s approach is to retain direct payments to farmers, although they will be capped at a maximum of €100,000 per farm a year. There are new environmental goals to be met to receive payments, with a target of a 50% reduction in pesticide use and a quarter of farmland organic by 2030.

The UK is proposing to phase out direct payments to all English farmers by 2027 with the earliest cuts for bigger farms. Farmers will be able to take their remaining payment is in one go as a retirement or investment fund. A system of ‘Public funds in return for public goods’ will be introduced that will pay farmers to carry out environmental, animal welfare or social projects. Investment grants to improve farm production will also be available and the UK will continue to contribute to EU science projects. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are developing their own agricultural policies which may retain some direct farm payments but also encourage more productive farming and environmental protection.

Ciaran Devlin, Deputy Director, Evidence & Analysis, UK Department of Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)

Central to England’s new approach will be the Environmental Land Management scheme which will help and support farmers to deliver clean and plentiful air and water; offer protection from environmental hazards; mitigate and adapt to climate change; encourage plants and wildlife to thrive and maintain the beauty and heritage of the countryside, while encouraging people to engage more with the rural economy and landscape. There are three main elements to the ELM system. The first is the Sustainable farming Incentive – simple on-farm actions that achieve desired environmental outcomes. The second element is Local Nature Recovery – locally-targeted environmental goals, encouraging collaboration among neighbouring farmers. The third element of ELM is Landscape Recovery – larger-scale projects involving a network of farmers and landowners to improve landscapes and ecosystems.

Caroline Drummond, Chief Executive of LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming)

Although the UK and EU are taking different approaches, they both have the aim of encouraging farmers to protect the environment more while producing food more effectively. Environmental protection is not a competition and co-operation between the EU and UK will be key to achieving common goals even if the paths taken to meeting those common goals are different. Because there is not one solution, but a number of approaches, the big opportunity will be learning from each other on what works best.

Engagement between the UK and EU is more important than ever

“The webinar highlighted the differences in approaches between the EU and UK,” said Adrian Bell after the event, thanking the expert speakers for taking part.

“But the event also highlighted that there is still a lot of common ground between the two. Overnight the UK has become both the biggest customer for the EU’s food and also its biggest food supplier. Meanwhile, the challenge of ensuring the planet feeds and protects itself will need co-operation between countries across the world. Agricultural journalists have a unique role in providing farmers with information and insight and the ENAJ provides an invaluable European network to help them do that.”

The webinar can be viewed on YouTube.

ENAJ Brexit webinar, 25th February 2021