British farmers will face years of uncertainty if the UK leaves the European Union, a leading agricultural economist has warned.
Former NFU chief economist Sean Rickard outlined his thoughts on the future for farming during a speech at the Agribusiness 2016 conference on Wednesday (11 November).
Mr Rickard’s presentation came during a week in which David Cameron set out the UK’s demands as the government seeks to renegotiate its relationship with Brussels.
Agriculture is unlikely to feature prominently in any renegotiations ahead of an in-out referendum promised by the government before the end of 2017, suggested Mr Rickard.
It would be futile for the prime minister to attempt any fundamental reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, he told conference delegates at the Peterborough Arena.
But claims that leaving the EU would mean the UK regaining control over agricultural policy were also perplexing, Mr Rickard added.
Outside the EU, the UK would still have to follow any regulations cited as reasons by pro-independence campaigners for leaving the trading bloc, he said.
UK agriculture – which accounts for just 1% of GDP – would have to argue its case alone compared to the power it enjoys now within the EU.
“In principle, the UK would have two years to negotiate its new trade relationships with the EU following a no vote,” said Mr Rickard.
But was unlikely that agriculture would be a priority, he suggested, and the period of any uncertainty could be lengthened by an EU Council vote.
“The process of leaving would create at least two years of uncertainty, during which competitors – for example Ireland – might succeed in attracting food sector investment away from the UK.”
Asked afterwards by a conference delegate whether he believed the UK should be “in or out” of the EU, Mr Rickard said he had tried to be objective.
But he added: “I think we would be barking mad to leave. Is that clear enough for you?”
Mr Rickard said he thought direct farm payments would go, although no-one had said over how long or whether they would be completely eliminated.
It was also likely there would be less government spending on farming – although it was likely to be many years before it fell significantly.
There would also be a different attitude towards science and technology – certainly in England if not Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, said Mr Rickard.
Farmers and agrochemical companies would benefit from quicker approvals rather than the long, drawn-out EU process when it came to pesticide products.
“I think there would be a slightly more informed approach towards active ingredients,” he said.
But lobbyists – including consumer groups, environmental groups and public health campaigners – would continue to campaign on food and farming issues.