By Emily Beament, Press Association Environment Correspondent
A no-deal Brexit is the “stuff of nightmares” for British farmers, industry leaders have warned.
National Farmers’ Union president Minette Batters said it was “absolutely shocking” that it was still not clear to farmers what trade conditions they would be operating in or what Britain’s future agricultural policy will look like.
“I make no apology for saying that leaving the EU without a deal would be a catastrophe for British farming,” she told the NFU annual conference in Birmingham.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove also warned that leaving the European Union without a deal would lead to “significant costs to our economy – and in particular to farming and food production”.
He urged MPs to understand the consequences of a no-deal for British farmers and food producers and reiterated his support for Prime Minister Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement.
Ms Batters said high tariffs for exporting to Europe could effectively mean there is no market for four-and-a-half million lambs, decimating farms from the uplands and the Welsh mountains to the lowlands.
And next week ships will set sail from Britain with cargo including food exports that will arrive in their destinations after March 29, when the UK is set to leave the bloc.
Farmers need to make a decision now on whether to load British produce on to ships which will set sail on February 28, she said.
Without a deal with the EU, there would be a failure to roll over many of the trade deals currently held with other countries outside the bloc.
Ms Batters questioned whether there would be a deal in place that allows the goods to be accepted, and, if not, what would happen to that British produce.
“With 900 hours to go, it’s unacceptable for Government to leave British businesses having to take this gamble.”
She said the issue of maintaining food standards “is critical” and called for a high-level commission to ensure farmers are not undercut and that imported food meets the same standards as British produce after Brexit.
Concerns have been raised that trade deals could see a lowering of standards or cheap imports of foods such as chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-fed beef from the US which do not meet UK rules and undercut British farmers.
Mr Gove reiterated his promise that there would be no lowering of environmental, animal welfare standards in pursuit of trade deals.
“We will use all the tools at our disposal to make sure standards are protected and you are not left at a competitive disadvantage,” he told farmers.
The minister said there were advantages to leaving the European Union, such as being released from the “one-size-fits-all” Common Agricultural Policy, improving regulations, supporting small farmers and securing better international access for UK exports.
However, he warned: “But all these potential gains are potentially compromised, indeed put at severe risk, if we don’t secure a deal with the EU.
“If we leave without a deal then there will be significant costs to our economy – and in particular to farming and food production.”
He warned of high tariffs for sheep and beef exports to the EU, new checks at the border – where Calais currently has no facilities for checks – and new
labelling requirements in the case of a no-deal Brexit.
He said he was “optimistic” that Parliament would vote for a deal, but added that he did not want to leave anything to chance.