Adrian Mason is a lawyer and a former Deputy Chair Political of the North Wales Conservatives.
It is always pleasing to write about positive developments that are happening in troubled times. The opportunities that present themselves to Welsh farmers, now that we have left the European Union, are enormous.
Farmers care for around 80 per cent of Wales’s land area. Agriculture, along with tourism, is the economic lifeblood of the country. What happens to the farming industry will have a profound effect on the future of Wales in the post-Brexit era. If our farmers can prosper, then the benefits for Welsh communities will be significant.
We are at a crossroads. For the last 47 years, Welsh agriculture has been subject to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which allowed farmers to export their produce to the Eurozone tariff free and, in many cases, receive subsidies determined by Brussels. Since January 1st, this has all changed. The CAP no longer applies to the UK. Agricultural policy is now a national issue. The Basic Payment Scheme, the biggest of the rural grants and payments that provide help to the farming industry, will be maintained into 2021. Pleasingly, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) concluded by the UK Government with the EU will ensure the continuance of tariff-free access to the European market for our farmers.
However, whilst there is much to be positive about, there are some worries. Agriculture in Wales is a devolved matter, so the responsibility for the industry resides with the Welsh Government (WG). Setting out its policy in a White Paper for the Agriculture Bill, Wales’s Environment Minister, Lesley Griffiths, criticised the historical CAP payments for not adequately supporting efforts to protect the environment and enhance the Welsh countryside. The WG therefore proposes that future payments to farmers should be subject to additional environmental caveats, which are likely to prove onerous. These include satisfying economic, social, and cultural criteria. It is intended that such benefits be secured through the Sustainable Farming Scheme, which is primarily focussed on environmental outcomes.
The scheme is perhaps typical of Welsh Labour’s generally hostile approach to commercial activity, putting ideology before economic reality. At a time of change, the opportunities presented to Welsh farmers should not be constrained by further regulatory burdens of the type proposed by the WG. Indeed, one of the major criticisms of CAP was of the overburdening bureaucratic red tape taking up a disproportionate amount of farmers’ time. Whilst safeguarding the environment is of course important – and farmers are the first to recognise their responsibility for ethical husbandry – there needs to be a balance that does not damage their competitiveness in a world market at this pivotal moment of exciting change.
The WG White Paper comes at a time when there is renewed optimism in the Welsh farming industry. Now the fears and doubts of ‘no deal’ have disappeared, farmers can look forward to the future with certainty and confidence. However, whilst the WG is hatching its plans for burdensome regulation, the agri-industry is getting on with building the future.
Huw Thomas, Political Adviser to the National Farmers Union Wales, comments:
“Brexit uncertainty has meant that many farmers have delayed on-farm investment and development decisions; now that we know what sort of trading relationship we have with our largest export market, I very much hope that farmers will have the confidence to start investing on farm and growing their businesses. I hope we will see new export opportunities open up for Wales’s farmers, and a return of confidence across all sectors allowing them to invest and plan for the future.”
There is evidence of this renewed optimism on farms all over Wales, though many are still cautious in their approach to the future. There are some shining examples of how the entrepreneurial spirit within the industry has reignited in recent times, and this can surely only increase now we have left the CAP.
Take, for example, the farmer from Corwen, in North Wales who exports 1,000 Welsh lambs to Norway every week and has opened up a supply line to the Middle East. Others are taking the opportunity to diversify from traditional farm produce and are producing quality cheese, yoghurts and butter.
Hybu Cig Cymru (Meat Promotion Wales) (HCC) is keen to ensure that Wales’s premium lamb produce finds its way to non-EU countries. Currently, around 85 per cent of beef and 92 per cent of lamb goes to Europe. This is the legacy of 47 years of EU membership, which militated in favour of sales within its single market but did not encourage farmers to look elsewhere to export their produce.
However, now the UK Government is free to enter into free trade agreements with other countries, there are now real opportunities to export, tariff-free across the globe. The TCA gives our farmers the best of both worlds, maintaining access to the EU market whilst offering the prospect of new markets elsewhere in the world.
Kevin Roberts, the HCC chairman, said recently:
“We [also] look forward to building new trade relationships right across the world as we have been for the past few years – lamb exports to the Middle East are growing quickly, and there’s huge potential in North America, Asia and elsewhere.”
Indeed, exports to the Middle East, a market worth an estimated £7.8 billion in 2019, have increased ten-fold. Whilst still modest, the potential for Welsh farmers is enormous. Welsh lamb can now be found on the shelves of three supermarket chains in Qatar, for example, and is exported to Japan and Canada. And whilst Welsh farmers would find it difficult to compete with New Zealand on quantity, the USP for Welsh lamb is its premium quality. HCC is taking enormous strides in promoting Welsh meat into the global marketplace.
Whilst it is still very much early days in our post-Brexit journey, there are positive signs that this new era will bring with it fresh opportunities for Welsh farmers and others in the agricultural industry. The only caveat to that, as always, is the attitude of the Welsh Labour Government, who are seemingly hell-bent on replacing the EU’s onerous regulations with their own.
The WG should take the opportunity to deregulate the industry to allow our farmers the scope to engage in entrepreneurial schemes which will further diversify and expand Welsh agriculture. A ‘light touch’ approach, within reason, would free our farmers from non-productive paperwork, allowing them more time to use their expertise in positive ways. This will be good for, not just the Welsh economy and the land, but also the environment generally. Such an approach is more likely to achieve the objectives set out in the Agriculture Bill, rather than imposing a raft of rules and regulations.