“THE SINGLE farm payment, albeit a blunt instrument, has been the difference between survival and collapse for many businesses” – those were the words of Conservative MEP Anthea McIntyre, who stressed the importance of payments to farmers, ensuring food is produced with high animal welfare standards, at affordable prices.

With less than a week to go until the European elections, The SF caught up with the Conservative spokesperson for agriculture and rural affairs, who detailed what she has been doing to ensure post-Brexit, farmers rights are protected and prioritised, and warned against a no-deal outcome and the sudden imposition of trade tariffs.

The MEP is also the representative of the West Midlands, which she states is her prime responsibility, but, in her capacity as agricultural spokesperson, she has been very active in emphasising the importance of food production and protecting farmers in the food supply chain.

Hailing from horticultural roots, Ms McIntyre works alongside her brother and husband producing wine from their vineyard in Herefordshire.

“I live in Herefordshire and started a horticulture business with my brother in 1976. Originally, we grew strawberries and raspberries and then potatoes. In 2010, my husband joined in and we planted a vineyard. We now produce red, white, rose and sparkling wine which we sell to a wide variety of outlets in and around the county. I am also proud to be an official ambassador for English and Welsh wine.

Standing up for the sector

Championing food security has been at the heart of Ms McIntyre’s work in her role as the Conservative’s spokesperson on agriculture in the European parliament.

“Within my role as agriculture spokesman I strive to emphasise the importance of food security and ensuring the farming industry gets a fair hearing. There are many political and ecological zealots in the parliament who give a very low priority to putting food on tables or managing the landscape, so more-sensible voices face a constant battle to ensure balance and reason.

“Over the past seven years I have promoted the work of West Midlands farmers and agri- technology within the European Parliament. In July 2013 I brought a delegation of MEPs from a range of different Member States to see West Midlands horticulture first-hand.

“Most recently, I was key in passing legislation to protect farmers in the food supply chain and ban a number of unfair trading commercial practices. Farmers are the most precarious in the food supply chain and I hope that this new piece of legislation will go some way to protecting their livelihood. It will apply to supermarkets etc inside the EU when they buy from farmers and growers outside the EU. So our farmers and growers will continue to be protected from unfair practices in the EU after Brexit.”

A post-Brexit farming landscape

During the ongoing Brexit negotiations, Ms McIntyre and her colleagues have been working hard behind the scenes to ensure that the interests of British farmers will be protected long past our departure from the EU.

“We have been very busy in continuing to ensure sensible decisions are taken on legislation, such as the recent raft of new rules on unfair trading practices, which will continue to benefit British farmers long after Brexit. We have also made sure that concerns, such as availability of labour and the potential effects of tariffs, are heard at the highest levels in our own government.

I am still very much hoping that the Westminster Parliament will act in the national interest and finally back the Prime Minister's withdrawal agreement in time to avoid the European Elections. If not, I will stand in the European elections and, while the UK is still an EU member state, and if I am re-elected, I will continue to participate fully in the European Parliament, representing the people of the West Midlands and protecting the interest of the UK. I will also be seeking support in Brussels amongst colleagues in the European Parliament, who will have to vote through the final deal, if and when it has been approved by our Westminster Parliament.”

A future agricultural support system

Designing a new, bespoke agricultural policy has been a divisive topic amongst the farming community and Ms McIntyre highlights that despite the Common Agricultural Policy’s inefficiencies, the guaranteed income can sometimes be the difference between a farm’s failure or survival.

“The CAP has many faults and trying to reform it and make it fit for the modern era has been a life's work for some MEPs. Its great weakness is a tendency to reward inefficiency (often found on continental farms) and stifle innovation and economy (often found in the UK). However, the single farm payment, albeit a blunt instrument, has been the difference between survival and collapse for many businesses. In fact, we all benefit from the single farm payment. It enables consumers to buy safe and nutritious food, and meat produced with high animal welfare standards, at affordable prices. The single farm payment ensures quality without a high price tag.

“It is now in our hands to decide what sort of grants system replaces the CAP. We must aim to strike the correct balance between greening the countryside and feeding a growing population. I do think it is vital that we avoid a no-deal Brexit and the sudden imposition of trade tariffs. British farmers have always been at the forefront of pioneering new technologies in agriculture, but we are held back by the excessive rules imposed by the CAP; it is my hope that the UK’s model of agriculture promotes much greater R and D and innovation in food production.

“I believe some of our key opportunities will be in harnessing new technologies, new materials and new methods which the EU machine is often painfully slow to embrace.”

Embracing new technology

Post-Brexit, the UK could look to adopt GM techniques, which Ms McIntyre explains is key to boosting production and shouldn’t hold the UK back in developing future trade deals with the EU.

“I have already produced one report on Technological Solutions for Sustainable Agriculture, and another is on the way. These reports strongly promote a range of new technologies including precision farming, smart plant protection and GM techniques as the key to boosting production while protecting the environment.

“I have consistently argued the importance of considering the genuine science available rather than knee-jerk bans based on scare stories. With regard to GM, yes certainly the UK should consider it and promote it too. Although some EU countries, such as France, ban GM in production, they import vast quantities of GM animal feed from the USA. I find their stance hugely hypocritical! I don’t believe our acceptance of GM methods will jeopardise our trade, when the product goes to market, you cannot tell whether it was produced with GM methods or not.

“We should not be afraid of the potential opportunities from a trade deal with the US, but it is important that the deal closely considers all aspects of welfare, quality and labelling. Our high standards of quality and welfare must not become a disadvantage. Free trade is fine, a free-for-all is not.”

Addressing labour shortages

Not only is Ms McIntyre the spokesperson on agriculture but she also serves as the Conservative’s spokesperson on employment and social affairs. One of the pressing issues she handles is the rising concern over migrant workers within both the agriculture and horticulture sector.

“The government’s pilot scheme for 2300 workers for outside the EU this year, is just that – a pilot scheme. I hope we will see it extended to around 30,000 when it comes in for real and I hope it follows the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) that has been so successful in the past. There is currently a problem recruiting EU workers to fill the needs of growers and recently fields of daffodils went unpicked because of a shortage of labour.

“We also need full time permanent employees in our rural areas, not only in agriculture but in the tourist industry too. I am concerned that a £30,000 pay threshold will be a problem for these industries.

“Vets are an essential part of rural and urban communities; they ensure the hygiene and safety of our food, protect animals, perform complicated surgical operations, work in preventative healthcare, surveillance and animal biosecurity to protect the UK from animal disease.

“Up until November 2014, 'veterinary surgeon' was included on the UK’s Shortage Occupation List. At the end of 2014, the profession was taken off the list and I know that this has had repercussions in terms of recruitment and retention; quite simply we need more vets.

“Around 50% of new vets registering to practice in the UK are non-UK vets and the majority of that 50% of non-UK vets are from the EU – the figures speak for themselves. I would be happy to speak to the Home Office about helping assist vets come to the UK and I also think we should look at investing more in UK vet education.”

In conclusion, Ms McIntyre leaves the UK farming industry with a promise that she will continue to champion the industry and deliver on behalf of the farming community.

“You produce some of the finest food in the world to the highest standards of welfare and food safety. Keep doing what you do best, embrace new methods where they a proven to succeed, and I will try to ensure politicians do not let you down.”