Opinion

Brexit – dare we look to the dark side?

Thankfully, the news coming out of Brussels seems to have lifted significantly as the UK and EU negotiators strive to arrive at a safe landing spot for a Brexit trade deal.

I have always held to the view that Boris Johnson is not insane. He is fully aware of the fact that a combination of ongoing Covid-19 restrictions and the wrong Brexit deal would do immeasurable damage to the UK economy for many years to come.

But, what if the two sides can’t get a deal over the line; is it the end of Irish farming and food as we know it? I don’t think so.

Yes there may well be tariffs on Irish beef and dairy products in the event of ‘no deal’. However, Brussels has consistently stressed that the Irish economy will not be allowed to suffer in the event of the wrong Brexit arrangements being arrived at.

At the very least, this commitment should see Brussels refunding Irish exporters for any tariffs they have to pay in order to retain a foothold in the British market.

Imports

It’s also worth taking a look at how a ‘no deal’ scenario would shake out within the echelons of the UK’s farming and food sector. It’s often overlooked that Irish beef and dairy imports are not feared by the likes of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).

But what does keep the office bearers of this organisation awake at night is the possibility that a tsunami of cheap Brazilian beef might be allowed to come into the UK during 2021 and beyond. The same principle holds, where imports of US chicken are concerned.

The arguments that will be put forward by Britain’s farm stakeholder groups in this context will centre of food production standards.

The last two decades have seen farmers in the UK invest very large sums of their own money on a plethora of quality assurance schemes, most of which are grouped together under the auspices of the ‘Red Tractor’ banner.

In response to these developments, UK supermarkets have acted to boost the price of many staple food items in their shops. A case in point is beef: the British red meat market is now the most lucrative of its kind in the world.

No wonder then that countries like Brazil and Australia would be deliriously happy to get a foothold within it.

The last few months have also seen UK supermarkets confirm that, where beef is concerned, they will give total precedence to farm-assured, British product.

Assurance standards

So how does Irish beef fit into this equation, moving forward? If we put the issue of tariffs to one side for a moment, the main issue up for debate centres on perceived quality assurance standards.

I have long argued that Bord Bia should have sought parity of esteem for its Origin Green project with the farm quality assurance programmes operated by the Red Tractor organisation. Such a meeting of minds would make UK retailers’ acceptance of all Irish farm and food produce so much easier.

And if such an approach was important in the past tense, its significance in a post-Brexit world becomes immeasurable.

But it’s not only the British supermarkets that can play the farm quality assurance game when they want to. Fast food conglomerates, such as McDonald’s, are equally adept at bringing these arguments into play when they want to.

Whether or not London and Brussels signs-off on a trade deal over the coming days, future challenges lie ahead when it comes to Irish beef finding suitable shelf space for itself on UK shop shelves. Perceived farm quality standards will go to the very heart of the argument that is to be had on this fundamentally important issue for Irish agriculture as a whole.

Potential for sheep

Meanwhile the Brexit clock continues to tick down. Guesswork can be fun sometimes. However, when it comes to determining people’s livelihoods, sticking with certainties and what we do know will always represent the way forward.

It is in this context that consideration should be given to the future of the Irish sheep industry. Irrespective of what Brexit trade deal is finally arrived at, the UK sheep industry will find it much harder to service the French market.

Enhanced animal health testing and associated bureaucracy will add considerable cost to British lamb imports coming into the EU. This, in turn, should provide an opportunity for Irish lamb suppliers to fill the void that will be created.

Sheep have always been a good news story for Irish agriculture. For one thing, they help boost conservation levels in our hill areas and they have an almost ‘zero’ environmental footprint.

I sense though, that the whiff of opportunity is already filling the nostrils of Irish flock owners. Recent sales have seen prices paid for ewe lambs and hoggets going through the roof.

There’s no doubt that Brexit can cause real challenges for Irish agriculture. But by the same measure, there are many opportunities to be availed of.

But if things do go wrong, what is the bottom line? Look at it this way – Ireland has been the poster child of the European project for the past decade. So Brussels is hardly likely to throw the country under the bus in the event of its own EU negotiators failing to get a trade deal sorted out with the UK.