A ‘hard border’ and other post-Brexit trade barriers between the UK and Ireland must be avoided, an open letter to the government from leading agri-food industry bodies has urged.

The letter - published today and signed by 35 representative bodies including the FDF, BRC, NFU, British Poultry Council and British Meat Processors Association - called for Theresa May’s government to maintain existing tariff-free trading arrangements between the UK and Ireland.

It warned the prospect of disruption to established supply chains would cause “significant economic damage” for both countries.

With speculation mounting the PM would initiate Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty as early as tomorrow, the letter pointed out that Ireland bought more UK food than the US, China, Russia, Brazil, Canada and Japan combined.

“The seamless single market in food and drink across the UK and Ireland allows the free movement of goods and workers. It also means that the majority of food sourced in Ireland from EU and international sources, particularly fresh produce, arrives via ports and supply chains from across the whole of the UK,” it added.

“This complete interdependence is essential to ensuring our food security and to feeding both countries.”

New disruptive customs barriers, port health controls and other costly bureaucratic requirements that impede the movement of goods and workers would disrupt established supply chain networks that operate across the UK and Ireland, the letter warned. This would cause significant economic damage while adding to existing food price inflation faced by consumers.

“A cliff-edge scenario that results in a sudden transformation to our trading arrangements with Ireland would be hugely damaging for our industry and for the wider economy on both sides of the border.”

In the event that new customs requirements cannot be avoided, “continuity and predictability for business must be a priority”, the industry bodies insisted. “Government would need to evaluate the administrative and regulatory requirements and put in place robust plans to deliver transitional arrangements that minimise disruption and provide sufficient time to allow businesses to adapt.”

Looming crisis

The letter follows warnings from industry bodies (first reported by The Grocer last month) of a looming crisis for the Northern Irish food sector.

A report by Northern Ireland Food and Drink warned some £1.3bn (or 28% of all food and drink sales in Northern Ireland) would be subject to an uncertain future due uncertainties over post-Brexit border arrangements with Ireland.

Meanwhile, trade union the Irish Farmers’ Association warned last week that the implications of Brexit on the Irish agri-food sector represented “the most significant challenge facing our farming and food sector in the history of the state”.

“Simply put, no other member state and no other sector is as exposed in these negotiations,” said IFA president Joe Healy.

“The UK is our closet market, of high value with similar preferences,” he added. “The implications of a hard Brexit are stark: the Economic and Social Research Institute estimates a potential reduction of EU trade to the UK of over 60% for dairy and 85% for meat. Translating this to an Irish context would mean a fall of €1.5bn in meat exports, with dairy exports falling by over €600m.”