The leader of Britain’s farming union, Meurig Raymond, hopes that the agriculture-related decisions made in London after his country leaves the EU will be more science-based and less emotional than is currently the case in Europe.
Meurig Raymond is president of the National Farmers’ Union, which represents British farmers.
He spoke to EURACTIV’s Sarantis Michalopoulos on the sidelines of the Global Food Forum in Treviso, Italy.
- ‘No-deal’ solution not in interest of UK or EU farmers;
- In UK society there is less resistance to GMOs now than ten years ago;
- There are currently no negotiations with the US for a trade deal;
- Michael Gove is supportive of UK farmers;
- A lot of arable farmers voted to leave the EU on the back of the glyphosate debate;
- Brexiter farmers have not regretted their choice
There is no progress in the Brexit talks and you have expressed your concerns about that. What is the atmosphere in the UK farming community? Are you feeling ready for a no deal scenario?
Definitely not. It’s in the interest of both British and EU farmers that progress is made. We do need to get through this first negotiating stage and then, moving to a trade deal, we need to have as free and frictionless a trade deal as possible. For the benefit of the UK and Europe.
Do you believe that the UK government has the will to put the farming sector at the centre of the talks?
I believe that out Secretary of State Michael Gove has elevated the food and farming sector up the political agenda, yes. He is quite supportive of UK farmers. He recognises that we are only 62% self-efficient in food so we are totally dependent on nearly 40% of our food being imported. That puts the UK economy in a very precarious position, particularly if there is a no-deal hard Brexit, WTO tariffs, who knows? The pound could weaken further and we could end up with further inflation. That is recognised by lots of people within the government, yes.
Has the UK government started negotiating in parallel with the US for a potential trade deal?
No, definitely not. I know that the secretary of state has been talking to his US colleagues. I know there has been a US negotiator, politicians in London, but it is well understood that they can have talks, they can scope out agreements but no one can come to an agreement on a trade deal while we are still members of the EU.
We leave the EU in March 2019, for the sake of the UK and the EU it’s important that we have a transitional period thereafter. I guess it will be highly difficult, highly unlikely that the UK government will be in a position to sign any trade deals while we are in that transitional period. So who knows, that could be three and a half years from now.
We know that the US agricultural model is specific. GMOs are on the market, for instance, while in the EU genetically modified products have no place. Do you fear that a trade deal with the US could force the UK to open its doors to GMOs?
I can speak on behalf of the UK farmers. In UK society there is less resistance to GMOs there was ten years ago. We import a lot of GM feed to feed our poultry, pigs and livestock. We import a lot of soya, which is GM and it’s impossible to buy a non-GM as it’s very costly.
We are not allowed to grow GM crops in the UK so that is an issue. Then we have the issue of hormone-treated beef, which makes US beef producers so much more competitive. I honestly do not believe that British consumers and society is ready to import hormone-treated beef. And then we have the issue around chlorine-washed chicken. And again the British consumer is not yet ready but totally against any concept of importing chlorine-washed chicken. That message is understood by Michael Gove and he has categorically said we will not import chlorine-washed chicken. So, if the US believes they are goning to be exporting those products in the UK over the next three-five years I think they are mistaken.
Let’s talk about glyphosate. The EU authorities have approved its use based on scientific evidence but some member states like France still oppose it. In the event of a ban and considering the consequences on farmers’ overhead costs, should UK farmers feel lucky about the Brexit vote in the long run?
There is no doubt that a lot of arable farmers voted to leave the EU on the back of the glyphosate debate. Because they cannot understand how decisions are being made for emotional reasons and not on the back of sound science.
We all know what sound science says, there is no issue with glyphosate and it should be reapproved for 15 years. This is our government’s position, so let us hope. When the decision is made next week, it will be based on science and not on emotive arguments. Glyphosate should be re-licensed for at least 15 years.
We have argued that strongly with our government. We as arable farmers have been encouraged over the last ten years to move away from moving the soil to no-till and min-till. A lot of farmers have invested huge amounts of money and they are convinced that their soil’s health has improved. You cannot do no-till, you cannot do min-till (minimum tillage) unless you have the tools like glyphosate. If glyphosate is banned then farmers are left to move back to cultivations inverting their soil, with all the carbon emissions that will cause and the damage to the soil’s health.
Science says it has to be reauthorised and secondly, if we are to improve our soil health, increase our productivity in the years to come, then we need all tools like glyphosate.
Let me insist on that. Another case is the lack of a legal framework for the so-called new plant breeding techniques and the EU has been heavily criticised for that. Could Brexit help the UK make quicker decisions and adopt technologies more rapidly compared to the complex decision-making process in the EU?
In theory, when we leave Europe, then the decision-making should be made at London level. I hope those decisions will be science-based, they will be fit-for-purpose for the UK, then it is important to have a good free trade deal for the UK and the EU. And the question that will happen hypothetically if we use glyphosate in the UK and it is banned in Europe, will we be allowed to export our wheat in the EU? Again, this is so complex that if we arrive at a situation in five years time when glyphosate is banned in Europe and we can license it in the UK, then we have to think of the trade implications the day after.
Let me ask you one last question. Do you feel British farmers have regretted the Brexit vote?
At the moment I don’t think they have, to be honest. I still believe that the majority of farmers voted to remain. But British voters who voted Brexit still believe that by leaving the EU there will be less bureaucracy, less regulation and a greater chance to go on the farm and produce good quality food rather than doing so much paper-filing.
Everything depends on how the negotiations will end up.