NFU Scotland: No-deal Brexit threatens fragile food supply lines

NFU Scotland director Andrew McCornick says the fragility of food supply lines, which was exposed by the Beast from the East, means a no-deal Brexit cannot be allowed to happen
NFU Scotland director Andrew McCornick says the fragility of food supply lines, which was exposed by the Beast from the East, means a no-deal Brexit cannot be allowed to happen
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Every MP in Scotland needs to understand that a no-deal Brexit is simply not an option for farmers and the rest of the agricultural sector, writes Andrew McCornick, director of NFU Scotland.

A two-minute delay at the UK border to complete customs checks could result in a 17-mile tailback – so warned the Port of Dover authority recently. For the agricultural industry, which relies strongly on ‘just in time’ processes in order to trade in fresh produce, this is a deep concern with the rhetoric around a ‘no deal’ Brexit continuing to build.

As Scotland’s largest agricultural organisation representing more than 9,000 farmers, crofters and growers, NFU Scotland has always been clear: ‘no deal’ would be the worst-case scenario and tantamount to the kind of chaotic cliff-edge change that we are desperately trying to avoid. It would mean no transition period between March 2019 and December 2020, which would be hugely destabilising for the farming industry. It would also mean the UK becoming a ‘Third Country’ overnight, bringing hard borders and vast export tariffs on some of our most iconic Scottish produce. There would be no specific arrangements for the movement of people, leading to severe labour shortages in the agricultural and food-processing industries. There would also be no continuity of the Common Agricultural Policy to allow a managed transition to new domestic agricultural policy arrangements.

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Behind the screaming headlines, these factors are very real. Over the last 45 years, UK agri-food has become deeply integrated within the EU policy and trading framework. The UK’s agri-food sector is much more dependent on EU markets than the EU is on the UK – with the exception of Ireland, no EU country sends more than 10 per cent of its food exports to the UK.

Since the EU referendum, NFU Scotland has been clear in its preference for the UK to remain within the EU Single Market and Customs Union. We have not won the argument on that, but in the time that’s now left to strike a deal on the future UK/EU relationship, the Prime Minister’s Chequers position is the closest possible outcome to it. NFU Scotland will continue to push every MP in Scotland to back this deal – as the alternative ‘no deal’ scenario is simply not an option for our industry.

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At home, the growing interest of the Scottish public in the origin, provenance and standards of their food is hugely important for our sector as we establish a connection between field and fork. Creating shorter supply chains and improving the visibility and availability of local, fresh produce on our shelves is a win-win for both producer and consumer. Nothing exemplified the fragility of these supply chains and processes better than the ‘empty shelves’ the country experienced during the ‘Beast from the East’ earlier this year. The inclement weather exposed a culture of short-termism and a lack of contingency planning in our supply chains where goods were left uncollected and undelivered to processors and retailers, despite the Herculean effort of our farmers, crofters and growers who battled through the Arctic conditions to milk cows and tend to livestock. From the ridiculous to the sublime, in the last few weeks, we’ve experienced a prolonged dry spell. Whilst the Great Scottish Summer of 2018 has been welcome to some, it caught many farmers out – with the exceptionally dry weather severely hampering crop and grass growth and the production of winter feed for livestock. This led to crisis talks between NFU Scotland, other agricultural organisations and governments in recent weeks.

Every day we are being challenged to make our industry survive and adapt. NFU Scotland recently launched a straw-and-feed campaign #NFUSHowDoYouPlan to get farmers thinking about their business needs not just this winter but further down the line and to work collaboratively. Planning ahead is not just important to deal with changing weather patterns, but the shifting political landscape too. With just a mere matter of months to go until 29 March, when Brexit becomes a reality, these are significant questions that still need answers.

A deal on the UK’s withdrawal gives us a clear opportunity to manage change and establish a clear operating and trading environment. That offers the certainty that businesses and all of society need.

Andrew McCornick is NFU Scotland’s director