Industry leaders and farmers locked horns in a Brexit debate at the British Pig & Poultry Fair today, with passions running high on both sides of the argument.
Organised in conjunction with BBC Farming Today, which will be airing the debate at 6.30am on Radio 4 on Saturday, the panel featured AHDB chairman Peter Kendall, MEP Stuart Agnew, farmer Colin Rayner and poultry producer James Hook.
On the pro-EU side, Sir Peter Kendall argued that 14% of the UK’s poultry and 19% of its pork were exported to EU nations, so it was essential to retain that open market.
“We need a reality check of what those who want to leave are advocating,” he said. The drive for cheaper food and reduced import tariffs would leave UK farmers competing against ever lower priced imports – and if EU countries imposed new tariffs that would only come off the farmers’ bottom line,” he added.
However, Stuart Agnew claimed that EU regulation only added cost to British farming, and insisted that even within the EU there wasn’t a level playing field.
“There are still caged hens and sow tethers out there,” he said. The future within the EU was also far from certain, with tremendous concerns over the Euro, EU growth, and middle Eastern migration. “This project is failing,” he added.
But leaving the single market wouldn’t be a disaster. “We export a lot to China and they’re not in the single market. We also import far more goods from the EU than we export to them – there’s a deal to be done here.”
However, James Hook warned that leaving the EU would have a serious impact on free movement of foreign workers, who were vital to so many British businesses.
“It’s taken 40 years to get here, and it’s working. We have strong supply chains, EU tariffs in our favour and good trade,” he said “Why would we risk it – it’s a massive gamble.”
Berkshire farmer Colin Rayner said British farming had survived before EU subsidies and would survive after leaving the EU.
“The EU isn’t going to be recognisable in 10 years time – it’s time for us to be brave enough to stand on our own two feet,” he said. It was also preferable to be able to hold British politicians accountable rather than be told what to do by foreign commissioners, he added.
But Sir Peter wasn’t so sure. “At the moment we have a supportive government – but what if we have a labour coalition with Nicola Sturgeon in the future? I’d actually rather have the Germans, Irish and French working for agriculture.”
The British Pig & Poultry Fair, partnered by ABN, was held at the National Agricultural Exhibition Centre at Stoneleigh, Warwickshire on 10-11 May 2016. To find out more visit www.pigandpoultry.org.uk.