LONDON: Welsh sheep farmers face a “bleak future” if the UK does not maintain free trade with the EU, a leading industry representative has warned MPs.
Addressing the House of Commons Welsh Affairs committee on Tuesday (9 January), chief executive of Hybu Cig Cymru (HCC) – the trade association for the Welsh red meat industry, Gwyn Howells said: “We [the UK] have a worldwide established brand because of trade with the EU. Ninety-five percent of (our) trade is with the EU. We must expand our portfolio of destinations but this takes a great deal of time.”
This is the latest warning from the UK farming sector about the economic hit that is at risk from a chaotic Brexit process.
A report by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), published last October, argued that reverting to trading with the EU under WTO rules would see a fall in average farm income across the UK of £20,000 (€22,000).
“In the short term, Wales will suffer due to our huge dependency on the EU market. Therefore maintaining market access with the EU is top priority,” the AHDB’s David Swales told MPs.
“Global opportunities will not be available for five to ten years. New trade deals are extremely complex and take a great deal of time to finalise.”
However, Swales added that not all agricultural sectors will suffer from a ‘no deal’ Brexit, as it is dependent on whether the farmer is a net exporter or importer.
“Sheep meat is a huge net exporter to Europe, but for other sectors, including beef and dairy, Wales is a net importer. It is only when [the UK] are net exporters that they lose out under WTO rules,” he said.
The Welsh lamb industry is under pressure to increase its shelf-life during which it can be transported and sold. At present, Welsh Lamb has Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status in the EU, but its shelf-life of 14-21 days is far shorter than those of leading lamb exporters, New Zealand and Australia.
There was need for an “industry-wide project to improve shelf-life and ensure cleanliness is maintained to a high standard across the supply chain,” said Howells.
“This is everyone’s problem and must be addressed.”
The government plans to put the EU’s existing trade agreements with third countries into UK law after March 2019, but has conceded that it will not be able to strike bespoke trade deals until after that date.
The UK meat industry has identified China as a target export market post-Brexit.
“However, the UK does not have a trade deal with China, and the time scale to negotiate trade deals is five to seven years,” said Howells.
In the meantime, they noted that the Welsh agriculture sector was already suffering from a loss of seasonal labour. “EU workers are not waiting until the exit date,” noted Howells.
“Wales has three main food abattoirs, with 50 to 60 percent of their total workforce being migrant workers from Europe. This summer, a noticeable amount has left for currency reasons and due to uncertainty of what the future will hold,” he added.