AT THE last gasp, the UK has agreed a new trade deal with Europe – but it’s not good news for Scottish seed potato growers.

Under the deal, almost all food and plant exports from Great Britain to the EU can continue after Brexit, including ware potatoes – but seed potatoes are not included.

The broader agricultural industry has been given ‘third country equivalence’, meaning that the European Commission will recognise its regulatory, supervisory and enforcement regime as equivalent to its own, but the faster-moving regulations around seed potato health could not be accommodated within that deal.

Defra stated: “Unfortunately, the EU confirmed they will not accept our case for a permanent change to the prohibition on seed potatoes … on the grounds that there is no agreement for GB to be dynamically aligned with EU rules.”

The split between the UK and EU on these rules also means that exports of seed potatoes will be barred from GB to Northern Ireland.

Scotland Food and Drink chief executive, James Withers, took to social media to point out that around 20,000 tonnes of potato seed is currently sold to the EU by Scotland, equivalent to a fifth of all UK seed potato exports, at a value in excess of £4.5m. Fortunately, a continuity trade deal with Egypt should still protect our single largest market for British exports.

Speaking from seed potato exporter, Cygnet PEP, director Sandy McGowan, said that the sector had been prepared for this outcome: “Since Brexit was voted for we’ve had this third country equivalence looming and hanging over our heads.

“We currently have alignment but the EU are saying the UK may choose to move away from that. What we’re trying to do is have some form of assurance from the devolved governments that we aren’t going to move way from that in the short term that would allow us to keep trading for the rest of this potato season. But I think realistically I can’t see that happening in time to make much of a difference.”

Producers had reportedly been trying to ship as much seed stock to the EU as possible before Brexit becomes final on January 1, but recent delays at Dover frustrated those efforts.

Responding to the news that Scottish seed potatoes would be barred from the EU, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “This is a disastrous Brexit outcome for Scottish farmers … and like all other aspects of Brexit, foisted on Scotland against our will.”

Scottish Rural Affairs Minister Mairi Gougeon had previously written to Defra Minister of State, George Eustice, to highlight the specific risk to the country’s high-health seed potato sector, both from the loss of the EU market, and any side-effects in its relationship with the major third country markets in Egypt and the Canary Islands.

NFU Scotland president, Andrew McCornick, described the seed potato exclusion as ‘deeply disappointing’: “NFUS has been highlighting this issue over the course of this year with both UK and Scottish Governments. It has been recognised by all as a problem that needs sorted.”

However, the announcement of the last minute trade deal was hailed as ‘a great relief’ for the majority of Scotland’s farmers, crofters and food export businesses.

The actual details of the agreement, within a 2000-page document, are yet to be scrutinised and receive parliamentary approval, but there is at least now a stable platform for continued trade with the EU, albeit with significant levels of bureaucracy, additional cost and delays, particularly in early January.

Mr McCornick continued: “It is good news and a huge relief that a deal has been done. The delay in getting agreement has meant that farmers and crofters, who had been forced into making big business decision for 2021 in a void, now have a degree of certainty that European markets will be accessible next year for most of their products.”

Speaking from Scotland’s red meat promotions body, Quality Meat Scotland, CEO Alan Clarke, said: “Scotland has a strong, vibrant red meat sector, providing premium products both here in the UK and overseas, especially in EU markets. Brexit is an issue of vital importance to businesses in the industry and many companies, particularly in the sheepmeat sector, will be relieved that the transition period will conclude with a deal to avoid tariffs that could have made EU trade unaffordable while depressing prices at home.

“Nonetheless, businesses trading with Europe after the New Year will still need to make sure they are prepared for adjustments in areas from certification to border control measures.

“They will look to government for clear guidance and support in the weeks and months ahead to help them adapt successfully to these new measures in the short term.”