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'Worrying' lack of tariff protection for eggs, cereals, fruit and veg: UK farmers

By Emily Beament, Press Association Environment Correspondent

Farmers have labelled the lack of tariff protection for sectors including eggs, cereals, fruit and vegetables in a no-deal Brexit as "enormously worrying".

National Farmers' Union president Minette Batters said it was a relief to finally see the import tariffs that would be applied if the UK crashes out of the European Union without a deal.

But she said it was "appalling" that the Government was only publishing them a fortnight before they could come into effect, leaving farmers and food businesses no time to prepare.

Problems will be exacerbated by the fact that the agricultural sector will face tariffs on exports to the EU and other countries with whom the UK enjoys free trade agreements, she warned.

The NFU has welcomed the move to treat some sectors "sensitively", such as lamb, poultry and beef production, which the organisation said may support producers facing disastrous disruption from no-deal.

But Ms Batters said: "It is enormously worrying that some sectors will not have this protection - noticeably eggs, cereals, fruit and vegetables.

"Even those sectors that are treated sensitively will, in most instances, see worrying and large reductions in the tariff rates currently charged on non-EU imports."

The approach being taken by the Government, which will lump products such as whole carcasses and high-value cuts of fresh beef together, also means there is a high chance of market distortion, she warned.

And while she said the NFU recognised the importance of ensuring that food prices for consumers do not rise in a no-deal Brexit, the sector is concerned that the tariffs would mean a greater reliance on food produced overseas.

"This would not necessarily lead to cheaper food for consumers but would mean we export and increase the environmental impact of our food production while losing control of the high standards of animal welfare to which that food is produced.

"In a no-deal scenario the Government must act immediately to revise these tariffs and quotas should this happen," she urged.

And she said the publication of the tariffs was another example of how British farming will be damaged by a no-deal Brexit.

"No-deal must be taken off the table and a workable solution identified by MPs and Government as a matter of urgency that takes us into an orderly Brexit."

The National Sheep Association's chief executive, Phil Stocker, said the organisation was "extremely pleased to see the Government recognising the importance and sensitivity of our sheep farming industry" with full protection for the sheep meat sector.

But he raised concerns that a no-deal Brexit would still result in far higher volumes of lamb on the domestic market than historically seen, while British sheep farmers would face a period of losing exports to the EU, and potentially regaining it with high World Trade Organisation tariff rates in place.

"This means we may still be in the situation, in a few months' time, where our domestic markets may become flooded, driving the price of lamb down.

"This would be very bad news for our producers, but for retailers and processors too, as many will have forward purchased lamb for the spring and early summer period and may face a challenging retail market."

Campaigners warned that the plan to dramatically reduce meat and dairy tariffs could hit animal welfare and undermine British farmers.

Nick Palmer, head of Compassion in World Farming UK, said: "The Government's plan to dramatically reduce import tariffs on meat and dairy products from non-EU countries to well below the current tariffs set by the EU will put UK farmers under great pressure.

"We could see cheap meat produced to low animal welfare standards flooding into the UK and undermining our farmers."

He added: "The Government seems to intend to scrap import tariffs altogether on eggs and egg products; this could lead to eggs - and particularly egg products - from battery hens coming into the UK even though barren battery cages are banned in the UK. This would place UK egg producers in great difficulty."