Securing adequate direct funding levels for cattle and sheep farmers and avoiding a cheap import policy, must be priorities for the North’s red-meat industry post-Brexit, according to Northern Ireland Meat Exporters’ Association (NIMEA) Executive Director Conall Donnelly.

“There is certainly a belief, among some with influence at Westminster that a cheap food policy should hold sway once the break with the European Union is achieved.

“This may well entail a reduction in direct farm support levels and the UK securing free-trade deals with a range of countries around the world.

“Many of these potential trading partners have heavily subsidised-farming sectors and food industries that cannot match our high standards.

Do they pay a living wage? Do they apply the same environmental protection and welfare standards as those achieved day-in, day-out by farmers and food companies in this part of the world?

“The challenge ahead is that of securing a level playing field for the farming and food sectors here in Northern Ireland.”

Donnelly made these comments following the recent NIMEA networking dinner, where the former DEFRA Secretary of State Owen Paterson MP was a guest speaker.

“Paterson’s message was quite clear and gives us an insight into the thinking close to the government,” said Donnelly. “In essence, his vision for UK agriculture is one that competes in the world market – subsidy-free and tariff-free.

“To make Brexit a success, Paterson’s view is that the route to trade deals for the entire economy is to eradicate subsidies on food and to phase out inbound tariffs. These concessions would open up the possibility of getting wider trade deals and reduce the price of food for the UK consumer.

“Paterson also made repeated references to the New Zealand experience and believes that without subsidies, less regulation and with increased innovation, the most fertile land in the UK would raise its productivity to compete in global markets.”

The NIMEA representative added: “We cannot casually dismiss Paterson’s perspective. As an industry, we certainly need to drive continuous improvements in competitiveness and productivity.

“However, there are few in Northern Ireland that would accept that our industry is in a position to compete with countries in the southern hemisphere – given all their advantages in terms of scale, climate and [lack of] regulation.

We must be aware of these views and, while Owen Paterson’s position may be seen as radical in Northern Ireland, his opinions are likely to be closer to mainstream in Westminster.

“The wider industry has to be very strong challenging such views, which would have a lasting negative impact if they became government policy.”