Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) secretary Theresa Villiers MP met farming and food industry leaders at Hillsborough Castle earlier this week.
However, details remain very sketchy with regard to the subject areas discussed and possible agreements reached.
It seems that the DEFRA minister did commit to an emergency support package for farming and food, in the event of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit. However, according to the Dairy Council’s chief executive Dr Mike Johnston, who attended the meeting, no details were provided regarding the size of this aid package and how it might be spent.
He continued: “The minister was told in the very strongest terms that a ‘No Deal’ Brexit would have a cataclysmic impact on Northern Ireland’s milk industry.”
Figures produced by the Dairy Council over recent days indicate that a No Deal Brexit would cost the dairy sector up to £300m annually.
Johnston continued: “But this is only part of the problem. Dairies would also be faced with additional costs linked to the additional bureaucracy and red tape associated with a ‘No Deal exit from the European Union.”
Representatives from the Ulster Farmers’ Union also attended the meeting with Theresa Villiers.
UFU deputy president Victor Chestnutt commented: “We outlined our concerns regarding a no-deal Brexit and also the challenging market situations facing farmers across all sectors. We expressed our disappointment with the UK government’s proposed no-deal tariff regime and how it would put Northern Ireland farmers at a significant disadvantage.
“We highlighted that the industry would likely need significant financial support to get through a disastrous no-deal situation. The Secretary of State was receptive to the concerns we raised.”
Meanwhile, former UUP MEP Jim Nicholson has urged farmers not to dismiss the serious warnings coming from industry leaders.
He said: “I noted the comments earlier this week from the Northern Ireland Dairy Council that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, farmers here would face a huge drop in the price paid for their milk as a result of the extra costs of trade barriers.
“Yet I still hear some farmers talk dismissively about the threat of a no-deal scenario. Let me be clear, crashing out of the EU would be an absolute disaster and be catastrophic for the local farming community.
“These latest warnings about the dairy sector are not over exaggerated. Other sectors would also be hit hard. The beef sector for instance is already suffering from serious financial loss, and in the event of a no-deal the sheep sector here could face total wipe-out if it lost half of its market overnight.”
Nicholson added: “Similarly, even if there is a bad deal the broiler-sector, the egg producers, our pig farmers will all not be immune to the changes that may come.
“These threats are nothing new, but it seems that it is only now that they are starting to sink in. Solutions must now be found to resolve the problem - realistic solutions and not just promises of financial support. In my view however this cannot be achieved in just the next few weeks. It will be the farmers who will carry the biggest burden and will suffer most so I call on the industry to cooperate and work together in the weeks and months ahead.
“The short term problems of Brexit are immense but looking longer term our farmers would be worse off than any other farmers in UK or Europe in the event of a bad deal. They would likely have to meet not only UK standards but also EU standards into which they would have no say or input. At this point in time we do not know how great the deviation of standards may be or how high the bar may be set by either side.
“Similarly, there is no certainty or guarantee for future funding after 2022. I know everyone is fed up listening to the Brexit debate but we are now approaching the end game of the first part at least.”
Nicholson concluded: “We still have a long way to go before a trade deal is in place but I am seriously concerned that the latest proposal from Boris Johnson would bring even more bureaucracy and red tape. The only crumb of comfort I see is that our main market in the UK will still be open and that for me should be the top priority. Yet the reality remains that ending up with two borders, one East-West and one North-South, would be disastrous for the Northern Ireland agricultural industry.”