The UK government should give farming voters a clear an unequivocal steer on what life outside the EU would mean for trading conditions, labour availability and support measures, Scotland’s first major industry gathering of the year heard yesterday.
Giving the key-note address at the Semex dairy conference, English NFU deputy president Minette Batters said that it was ridiculous that farmers and other businesses were being denied the information – such as whether they would have access to 500 million consumers on their doorstep – required for them to make a reasoned decision on whether the country would be better either inside or outside the EU.
“For [UK Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] Liz Truss to stand up at last week’s Oxford farming conference and say that her department had not even begun to look into what are critical issues such as market access to the rest of Europe and what support measures farmers might expect outside the EU simply defies belief.
“The referendum could take place as early as June of this year – we need this information and we need it now,” she said.
Batters, who will reveal later this week whether she intends to stand against current union president Meurig Raymond at the union’s agm in February – a move which could see her become the first female president of the union – said that there was also a need for clarification on the reforms being sought by Prime Minister David Cameron, designed to convince voters that the performance of the EU could be improved while still maintaining national sovereignty.
“There is a huge potential for a consensus on these reforms to deliver a more equitable common agricultural policy – which comes closer to delivering the ideals of being both common across Europe and properly aimed at agriculture,” said Batters.
Also speaking at the meeting was the deputy head of agriculture outlook with the European Commission, Sophie Helaine, who painted a less bleak picture of the UK dairy industry than was normal.
She pointed out that over the past ten years the price paid to UK milk producers had actually risen by 31 per cent, meaning UK producers were being paid more than many of their continental counterparts.
She also said that reductions in the price of feed in recent years had helped improve margins in the industry which, she said, should focus more on the overall costs of production rather than concentrating purely on the price of their end product.
Helaine said that while UK producers did not have the highest margins for each litre produced, the economies of scale provided by the larger than normal herd size meant that, per farm, UK incomes were amongst the highest in Europe.
Commenting on production figures she revealed that over the 2014-15 period when the Russian bans and fall in demand from China had created a massive oversupply in Europe – with consequent price drops – UK dairy farmers had increased production more than any other country in Europe.