Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA) Chairman Declan Billington gave the most enlightening perspective on Brexit, yet to be put into the public domain, courtesy of his presentation to this week’s DAERA Balmoral seminar.
In essence he said that the local food and drink industry has a unique opportunity to supply the British market with a wide range of dairy and meat products, once the UK goes it alone.
This is a direct consequence of Britain’s low self-sufficiency levels, where these foods are concerned, and the fact that traditional suppliers in countries such as the Netherlands and Germany will have to pay tariffs in a post-Brexit scenario. And he’s right – with one proviso.
If the UK does sign up to free trade deals with a range of other countries around the world, it is imperative that dairy and meat products are not included within the overall package of measures agreed. This is the only way that the various livestock sectors here in Northern Ireland can be protected. And, in a more general sense, there must also be guarantees given that all food imports coming into the UK are produced to the same standards as those expected of farmers in this part of the world.
Billington also made the case that – post Brexit - agriculture in Northern Ireland has the scope to expand its output, particularly, where meat and dairy products are concerned. He also foresees the need for local food manufacturing businesses to secure new export markets, particularly in South East Asia.
Where, pork, poultry, and redmeat are concerned these new market outlets will allow processors to secure a more sustainable return from the entire carcase. And, again, all of this is good news for farmers.
But all of this will count for nothing if Brexit sees an erosion of the direct support levels that are currently available to producers. The basic payment accounts for almost 90% of the profit generated by production agriculture in Northern Ireland. The assumption seems to be that direct payments are not part of Whitehall thinking, where future farm support measures are concerned. But, whatever is put in their place must directly compensate producers for any shortfall in farmgate prices. Without this guarantee, the outlook for local farming will become extremely bleak.