NFU conference 2017

With the threat of Brexit hanging in the air, there was plenty for farmers to talk about at this year’s NFU conference

How does the food industry make a success out of Brexit?

It’s one of the big unanswered questions of modern times, up there with how Donald Trump fixes his hair, and why it’s impossible to get a parking space in Aldi’s Hove branch.

Given our lack of knowledge on the UK’s potential negotiating position (and how our friends in Europe will react), it’s a question that no one can currently answer for certain.

Will UK exports to the EU face crippling tariffs? Will we respond in kind? Nobody knows, but the NFU gamely tried to tackle the topic in its annual conference in Birmingham this week when it laid out its ambitions for a post-Brexit food sector.

These annual showpiece events always have a certain familiarity to them: from the venue at the ICC, to the badger cull protestors outside, not to mention the traditional dig at the supermarket sector, and the yearly call (from NFU president Meurig Raymond) for the government to give farmers a better deal.

This year, however, NFU members were less interested in the retail angle (hence a distinct lack of supermarket talent in any key presentation) and more concerned with all things Brexit, Raymond told me.

“That’s why we’re concentrating on issues such as trade, labour and encouraging investment into the agriculture,” he said.

The NFU used the conference to outline its three key objectives for a post-Brexit food and farming sector.

European market

These involve securing unrestricted access to the European market; to avoid crops rotting in fields by ensuring farmers and food processors have access to a “competent and reliable workforce”; and, finally, the creation of a new, domestic agriculture policy “which assists in the development of an increasingly productive, progressive and above-all profitable farming sector”.

As NFU conferences go, the messages were generally positive on what the sector could achieve post-Brexit.

This was admirable, considering the litany of potential Brexit-induced threats hanging over the industry, from a potential influx of hormone treated meat from the US to the prospect of EU tariffs being slapped on British lamb at the same time as New Zealand imports to the UK are liberalised as part of a free-trade deal.

Raymond said environment secretary and conference keynote speaker Andrea Leadsom was “quite confident we can get tariff-free access to the single market”.

But unless she’s already secured a crafty pre-Brexit deal with the EU27 on single market access, I fear her confidence could well be misplaced.