Food production and food security were at the heart of Brexit for the agricultural businesses and bodies in a round table discussion at a regional Brexit conference at the Three Counties Showground including the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and the Country Land and Business Association (CLA).
Hosted by law firm Harrison Clark Rickerbys (HCR), the conference heard that businesses are meeting the challenges of Brexit in different ways – diversifying to spread risk, investing in technology, increasing herd/flock size or exploring other economies of scale, though concerns were expressed that the investment required will simply not be an option for all. While delegates welcomed the Agriculture Bill in general, they felt that food security should play a more significant role.
The consensus was that the Bill, currently being discussed in Parliament, provided a clear direction of travel for the sector, but that too much detail was still unknown, so its effect on the industry was hard to predict.
The fact that both production and security appear to have been overlooked and have not been recognised as a ‘public good’, meant that the environment is taking precedence, at a time when UK food production might be vital.
Cheaper imports which could follow Brexit if trade barriers are lowered were a concern – there was little faith expressed in the idea that consumers would opt for quality and origin over price and convenience.
There was considerable interest in technology, including artificial intelligence, but the gap between the current practical applications and the potential uses is still too wide for most businesses to make immediate use of it. It was felt to be no substitute for good business practice, skills and training, with staff still a vital resource for most farmers and agri-businesses.
The round table discussion, led by Esther Stirling, followed speeches by Richard Butler of West Midlands CBI, Frank Myers, chair of the Herefordshire Business Board, Ian Mean of GFirst LEP and Gary Woodman of Worcestershire LEP. The conference also heard from HCR’s Head of International Nicolas Groffman and Beverley Smith, a partner with HCR and a specialist in business immigration.
Delegates had the chance to vote live throughout the conference – 82% said they would vote the same way now as they did in the referendum, with 46% now less confident of their business success post-Brexit than they had been a year before.
While 32% have explored markets outside the EU since the referendum, 43% still believe that EU membership in some form is the best option for the UK economy. They also have the chance to vote as the situation develops – Harrison Clark Rickerbys has an online Brexit survey for businesses across the region which will be open until March at www.hcrlaw.com/brexit-survey.