Defra secretary Theresa Villiers has failed to quell concerns that farmers will be exposed to a flood of cheap food imports in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Farm leaders have repeatedly challenged government plans to impose tariffs on some imports, but not others. In particular, the NFU is concerned that a zero tariff has been set for eggs, some dairy products, horticultural products and cereal grains.
The issue was raised again at an NFU fringe event at the Conservative party conference in Manchester on Monday (30 September).
Ms Villiers said she was “not expecting big changes” to the government’s planned tariff schedule in the event that the UK leaves the European Union without a deal on 31 October.
She added: “I recognise the concerns felt about it, but we have sought to get the right balance – between ensuring that we don’t have unnecessary food [price] rises, but we do also ensure that our agricultural sector is appropriately protected.
“We have kept a number of tariffs in relation to, for example, lamb and beef. I do appreciate the concern felt. But I have to say the last thing we need is some kind of economic shock caused by a sudden price increase.”
NFU president Minette Batters rejected any suggestion that tariffs on imports of cereals and eggs would force up prices. “We don’t see that there would be any food price inflation at all,” she told the fringe event at the Radisson Blu Edwardian Hotel.
“Government really has to recognise the challenge here and take this seriously,” said Ms Batters. “We are asking very clearly for reciprocal tariffs.
“We produce a surplus of grains and 85% of it goes into the EU. If you look at the size of this year’s harvest, we have a massive surplus out there. So it is completely crazy not to have reciprocal tariffs in place. I would make the same point with the egg sector.”
Tiverton and Honiton MP Neil Parish, who chairs the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) select committee, said farmers would be driven out of business if the government pressed ahead with its existing tariff schedule.
“If we are going to do that, then there has to be compensation paid immediately,” he said. “You cannot tie the hands of farmers behind their backs so that we are having to take imports at no tariff – and then export with tariffs. You will destroy the industry.”