Access to the US market for organic cheese is vital, believes organic milk producer Lyndon Edwards, who farms outside Chepstow on the border between Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire.
Mr Edwards is a member of the Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative (OMSCo) which is concerned the lack of an equivalency agreement with the US once the UK leaves the EU will undermine sales.
The export trade – including sales of Kingdom cheese to the US – has enabled OMSCo to grow faster than it would have done had sales been limited to the UK, he says.
Exports account for 20% of the co-op’s revenue, compared with 8% for the food chain as a whole.
“Exports are extremely important to us,” says Mr Edwards, who milks 250 cows.
With 250 farmer members, OMSCo is the UK’s largest organic dairy producer, managing 65% of the country’s organic milk supply. Farmer-owned and farmer-run, it is also the second-largest dedicated organic dairy producer in the world.
As well as supplying the majority of the UK’s organic dairy processing needs and selling cheese abroad, OMSCo also has extensive experience of exporting raw milk, bulk ingredients, specialist milk ingredients and consumer products to overseas markets.
Unless a new equivalence” arrangement on organic standards is signed between the UK and the US within the next three months, OMSCo says its farmers will be forced to stop cheese production at the end of December.
That’s because it takes more than a year to process, mature, pack and ship Kingdom cheese – and ensure it has a suitable shelf-life period once it arrives in the US.
Organic cheese is case study for other exports
The situation faced by organic dairy farmers highlights the impact Brexit could have on other food and drink exports – including non-organic sales to the EU, as well as further afield.
Defra is keen to encourage exports from the UK’s agri-food sector.
It believes more agricultural exports would help to improve farm incomes, as well as helping to reduce the UK’s trade in goods deficit which widened by £800m to £34.7bn in the three months to July 2017.
But the NFU warns that food and farming exports could be hampered unless the UK and other countries co-operate on equivalence – while ensuring any new trade agreements account for differences in regulations and standards when market access is negotiated.
“It is an interesting case study,” says NFU Brexit director Nick von Westenholz. “It is an example of how equivalence arrangements might be able to improve trade outside the auspices of an all-singing-all-dancing trade deal.
“What it also demonstrates is the main issues around trade are actually around regulations and barriers, not necessarily about tariffs.
“In this case, having an equivalence agreement would open up market access to the US outside a full trade deal.”
Understandably, the NFU would not want to see any loss of market access for British produce, adds Mr von Westenholz.
“The organic sector might be a niche market but it is still important that the government doesn’t take its eye off the ball.”
New certificate ‘could take six months’
It could take six months for a new certificate allowing UK organic cheese exports to continue unhindered, believes Jennifer Wilson, of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
It wasn’t an official position, but experience suggested a solution would be found, suggested Ms Wilson, an agricultural specialist at the USDA foreign agricultural service in London.
The US had an “enormous amount of goodwill” towards UK, she added.
“When we have had animal by-products or other certification issues over the years, it may take four to six months to get a new certificate in place – or that kind of timeline to find a solution to keep trade flowing,” Ms Wilson told journalists at a media briefing in London.
It wasn’t that trade in organic products didn’t happen before the equivalence agreement between the US and the EU, she added. But there was more paperwork and more time required for export applications to be made and scrutinised.
“Trade did happen, it was just more unwieldy,” Ms Wilson said. “That might be what we revert to for a period of time before suitable letters can be exchanged.”