Scottish tattie seed export turns into a hot potato

Well, last week’s hot potato on the farming news front rather fittingly came from the tattie sector - seed growers to be precise.

It’s one of the areas in which Scotland has built up an enviable wolrd-wide reputation, with our cool climate and long summer days - backed up by a determination of Scottish growers not to introduce any diseases from outside sources - helping our seed potatoes to enjoy the sort of high health reputation which other countries can only envy.So, when the details of the trade deal with the EU finally hashed out on Boxing day began to filter out, it was a bit of a slap in the face to find that while the Europeans were still happy enough to take our ware potatoes, our top quality seed spuds would no longer be accepted.This didn’t really come as a big surprise to the sector - and the tail end of the year had seen a big rush on to get orders fulfilled before the Brexit transition period ended, just on case any hitches arose.And while this had presented a lot of additional hassle for growers whonormally prepare orders for other parts of the world at that time, I suspect that they might now be viewing it as a worthwhile exercise.Of course there had been no sudden change to the quality or health status of our seedstocks either side of of January 1. But rules, as they say, is rules and as seed potatoes would be propagated in Europe, one of those rules puts seed in a higher risk category than stuff sold for consumption - and given the UK Government’s insistence that it would not ‘dynamically align’ its future regulatory policies with the EU’s then the drawbridge was raised on the continent.But, with the sector bringing quite a lot into the Scottish economy, the issue was swiftly flagged up by the SNP as a prime example of how Scotland had been disadvantaged by Brexit.An appeal against this decision was lodged by the UK Government with the expectation that some sort of ‘equivalence’ deal could be reached which would continue to recognise the standards to which seed is grown in Scotland.This was always likely to be a bit of a long shot - because the EU, with one exception, has never allowed seed potatoes in from countries outside the trading block - that exception being Switzerland.Now, despite being slap bang in the middle of Europe, Switzerland has remained outside the EU - however one crucial difference is that it does submit to dynamic alignment - basically agreeing to follow rules and regulations over which it has no say.Unsurprisingly then, despite the issue being facing Scottish seed potato growers being raised at the European Commission last week, there was little sign that a breakthrough was on the cards - and this message was relayed to the sector by Defra Secretary of State, George Eustice at a meeting on Friday which had been convened to discuss the issue directly with growers.This triggered a call for the anomalous situation which currently allows seed potatoes from Europe to be imported into the to be addressed - and a reciprocal ban introduced.The one-way trade had been allowed to ensure that sufficient seed was available for UK ware producers to grow enough to ensure that there will be no shortage or price hike in spuds at home - an important issue for a minister with ‘Food’ prominently in his title and a Government keen on keeping food prices low.However, with around 80% of the seed used to produce the ware crop already grown within the UK and the amounts of seed both exported and imported being close to balance, growers pointed out that they could fill that gap.This, however would require some pretty swift footwork from seed growers – for the varieties they were probably set to grow for the increasingly unlikely to access European market are quite different for those favoured by UK ware producers - and planting will start in a matter of weeks.And so a similarly speedy commitment from the UK Government would be required to give the sector the confidence to do this.But although such an outcome might offer some sort of solution, there’s no getting away from the sad fact that years of hard work and endeavour will be lost by many of those in the industry who have had the initiative to cultivate and grow successful businesses based on trade with the continent.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise