If the UK Government cannot promise standards equivalence on food imports within new trade deals, it must urgently ramp up the commercialisation of UK farming, domestic processing capacity and support to develop export opportunities.

This is the message from Commercial Farmers Group (CFG), which says that Government’s refusal to commit to standards equivalence is sounding alarm bells that demand a rapid change of tactics.

The CFG supports liberalised markets in principle provided they are underpinned by standards equivalence, but says that with promises on equivalence slipping away, now is the time to switch track before it’s too late.

CFG member Andrew Osmond, who farms in Hampshire, is concerned the UK industry has been incapacitated by years of EU protection and is in need of pump priming to modernise.

He says: “We really need to concentrate now on how we compete.  We can’t do it on our own as money isn’t there and we have all become used to a protectionist system for almost 50 years; the current funding proposals simply cover some of what’s being lost.

“With complaints about lack of equivalence going nowhere, the industry needs proper and new investment to ensure farmers operating all shapes and sizes of system can adapt quickly to new market conditions.

“We also need to radically increase domestic farmer-owned processing capacity, vertical integration, and access to professional support on export opportunities,” he adds.

Co. Londonderry arable and beef farmer Robert Moore, a CFG colleague of Andrew’s, says Britain has always been a trading nation and won’t stop, so the sooner UK farmers face this and learn to manage it, the better.

Mr Moore says: “While there is strong and justified feeling of hurt over broken promises and poor communication around the Australian trade deal, we now need to tell Government it’s time to really invest in home production and the whole system to make it more competitive. I’m sure we can do this – but we need meaningful support.

“It’s also very concerning that the proposed Trade and Agriculture Commission has not yet been set up, as Government promised, and that trade deals are being rushed through without full consultation with our industry. We would urge the Government to prioritise this and to make sure that our home industry is allowed to compete with future agreements on a level playing field.”

Another member of CFG, Rutland farmer Sarah Bell, agrees there is an urgent need for Government investment in developing export opportunities.

“We don’t need civil servants; we need commercial deal makers. If Australia falls out with China and decides to send significant amounts of beef and lamb in to the UK, we will see long-term depression of values.

“We need to be first in there selling the British story,” she says. “We will struggle to compete on commodity prices alone so we’re calling on the Government to help the industry build value around its welfare and sustainability standards.”