AMBITIOUS TRADE deals must be front and centre to the future of farming – but the industry must not become a sacrificial lamb in the process.

This was one of the take home messages from last week’s NFU Scotland conference, where the presidents of the UK's four farming unions gathered virtually to discuss the impact of Brexit on future trade and policy between the nations.

NFU president Minette Batters stressed the importance of accessing new markets for agricultural produce: “We (UK) have been lazy exporters; we really need to spread our risk and make sure we are ambitious with our export policy moving forward.”

She went on to explain why the establishment of the Trade and Agriculture Commission has been such an important win for the industry: “We are the only sector now that will have oversight and scrutiny in parliament. It allows all of us to shape the future of trade policy and make sure that we are not the sacrificial lamb in all of this. Trade is everything. Trade is front and centre of the future of farming and we have to make sure to hold the government’s feet to the fire on their 2019 manifesto election commitment that they would not undermine farmers in the UK.”

NFUS president Andrew McCornick agreed that the UK has been a ‘poor exporter’ and needs to ‘grasp opportunities in the global market’ but pointed out that there was still much to be done closer to home.

“We are only 60% self-sufficient in the UK. There are opportunities within our own market that doesn’t involve a lot of paperwork, that doesn’t have a lot of lorries moving back and forward and that we should be exploiting. Maybe this change will drive us to be more self-reliant.”

NFU Cymru president John Davies threw another ambition into the mix – for the UK to boast the most climate friendly farmers in the world. “We can prove and validate we have some of the best food in the world and the smallest footprint for carbon in the world. We have to shine the light on what we are doing and mustn’t be cowered into the shadows with the latest climate change solutions. We have to be very clear about what we do and how we do it and be proud of that.”

President of the Ulster Farming Union, Victor Chestnutt, shone a light on another urgent issue – the considerable tension mounting between Scotland and Northern Ireland over trade: “We were promised free and frictionless trade and I can tell you it is neither free nor frictionless," he stated, adding that sheep imports from Scotland to Northern Ireland look like they can’t happen legally and that there are now sheep stranded in Scotland, but owned in Northern Ireland.

On the horticultural side, he pointed out that shifting anything with soil in it had become a real problem.

“Machinery coming in used to be cleaned and checked by DAERA staff but post-Brexit it needs a veterinary certificate to say it is cleaned,” he continued. “I don’t understand why you have to go five years to veterinary college to tell you whether a plough has dirt on it or not.

“Solutions need to be found as tensions in the Northern Ireland community are growing. It really galls people that they are now being treated as some kind of second class UK citizen – if moves aren’t made soon to sort some of these things out and to diffuse these tensions, I fear what might happen,” he warned.