FEARS independence could harm Scottish farmers’ ability to sell in supermarkets south of the Border have been raised following claims their produce would no longer be branded British.
The prospect of Scottish farmers losing contracts to major retailers has come to light after a leading supermarket chain warned a key Scottish supplier that it would switch to English farm produce after a Yes vote.
John Forbes, a pea, bean and pig farmer based outside Stonehaven, was told his products may no longer qualify as British if Scotland left the UK and could not be branded with the Union flag, which is featured on 90 per cent of produce sold south of the Border.
Forbes said he understood the supermarket would switch to English or Welsh suppliers and carry their national branding if Scotland became independent.
He said: “We supply all the major supermarket chains with milk, peas, beans or pork but one in particular has raised the problem with us. They asked ‘how will we be able to sell Scottish peas or beans to an English market if there is independence?’ It suggested that it wouldn’t and that is what has got me bloody terrified.”
He currently supplies 10 per cent of peas and 50 per cent of the broad beans sold in UK supermarkets.
Even if the supermarket chains he deals with continued to sell his produce in their Scottish stores, Forbes would lose 90 per cent of his market.
“It is terrifying. If you are not supplying supermarkets then you are not in the game. That’s why our business is structured around it,” he said.
Forbes, who is not a member of Better Together, said he was told by the supermarket that having the Union flag on produce had become “far more important” to discerning customers. Produce stamped with a Scottish Saltire could prove more difficult to sell south of the Border after Scotland left the UK.
“There are plenty of others [farms in England] who would happily take our business with the supermarkets,” he added.
“The way the market is now people want to know where their food has come from and want it to be as local as possible. If Scotland is not part of the UK anymore it will not be marketed as British and they [the supermarkets] will look to suppliers in England.”
He added: “This is the most worrying thing that has happened to me business-wise in my whole life.”
The seriousness of the issue is highlighted by figures from the National Farmers’ Union in Scotland that show how much Scottish farm produce is worth to the economy.
It says Scotland’s farmers, crofters and growers produce output worth around £2.3 billion a year and are responsible for much of Scotland’s £400 million food exports, rising to £2.4bn if whisky exports are included.
Around 65,000 people are directly employed in agriculture in Scotland and it is estimated a further 250,000 jobs (one in ten of all Scottish jobs) are dependent on agriculture.
Concern over the future of Scottish suppliers follows a warning from the chief executives of Asda and Morrisons that food prices could increase in Scotland if it left the UK.
Yesterday, Ian Murray, Labour MP for Edinburgh South and shadow business minister, said that Forbes’s comments highlighted what Scotland could lose if it leaves the UK single market.
He said: “Being part of the UK single market is good for Scotland’s farmers. Having barrier-free access to a market of over 63 million people throughout the whole UK, rather than just five million people, is good for jobs and business in Scotland. Why would we want to put up barriers between Scottish farmers and their customers elsewhere in the UK?”
Tory MSP and farmer Alex Johnstone said: “Agriculture is one of the areas that is so integrated in the UK that it would be hard to separate it out.
“More than 95 per cent of Scottish produce is sold in England so it is hard to see Scottish farmers surviving without that market.”
Asked to comment on the issue, Asda, Tesco and Sainsbury’s declined.
A Tesco spokesman said that comments would be handled by the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC).
But an SRC spokesman said: “In the end these are commercial decisions and we cannot comment on conversations we have not been privy to.”
However, Morrisons said it would continue to use Scottish farms even after independence. Ewan MacDonald-Russell, Morrisons Scottish affairs spokesman, said: “We are rooted in Scotland and don’t believe this will be a problem.
“We have our own farm in Ayrshire, our own abattoir in Aberdeenshire, and a partnership with over 800 farms across the country.
“In addition we have 63 Scottish stores and 16,000 Scottish colleagues.
“We will always have a home in Scotland – and source and sell the finest Scotland has to offer across all of our stores.”
Toni Giugliano, of Yes Scotland, who helped launch Farming for Yes last year, said: “Scotland is rightly proud of our farming sector and its contribution to our rural communities and the Scottish economy. However, all too often the needs of our farmers and rural communities have been ignored by successive Westminster governments – especially in the crucial Common Agricultural Policy talks.
“With independence, Scotland will have a direct voice in Europe, ensuring the needs of our farmers and rural communities are represented, and Scotland receives its fair share of CAP funds.”
Farming for Yes founder-member Jim Fairlie, of Kindrumpark Farm, Perthshire said: “The social and economic value of Scotland’s food and drink, and our agricultural sector, have never been truly appreciated or represented by Westminster. With independence, we can do much more. The potential that will be unleashed by an agricultural community that is recognised and respected for its role in Scotland will be vast.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Scotland’s reputation for quality food and drink is recognised globally and our food and drink sector has never been stronger, with a record turnover of more than £13bn.
“Supermarket customers across the UK will continue to be attracted to world-class Scottish produce, while independence will strengthen our ability to grow the Scottish brand and develop new opportunities to our promote our produce in the UK markets.
“Independence will also get the best possible deal for agriculture by giving Scotland the ability to negotiate directly within the EU on issues affecting farming.”