Catherine Paice detected animated suspense as she skimmed through Brexit-related written questions and answers processed in Parliament by DEFRA in the past couple of weeks.
Just days before Waitrose announced it is to require suppliers to use only non-GM soya from Europe in animal feed, Grant Shapps (Con, Welwyn Hatfield) was asking about the future of GM imports. He got little more than a curt and preemptory reply from George Eustice (Con, Camborne and Redruth), replying on behalf of the Secretary of State: “The Government will continue to follow a science-based policy on genetically modified organisms, including in relation to imports.”
When asked by Stephen Timms (Lab, East Ham) about policy on maintaining the standards of existing EU food standards directives after Brexit, he said no decisions had been taken about the UK’s future relationship with the EU, including on matters relating to existing EU law. “We will ensure that food standards are maintained in the UK to provide continued high standards for consumers and stability for business.”
The extent of the decline in live export trade, and the potential impact of Brexit on what remains, particularly with Ireland, shone through when Lady Hermon (Ind, North Down) asked how many live sheep and cattle had been exported from the UK to other EU countries this year. Eustice replied they amounted to 385,424 sheep – of which 337,385 were shipped to the Republic of Ireland – and 33,861 head of cattle, of which 12,159 went to Ireland.
Craig Whittaker (Con, Calder Valley) wondered how much assistance DEFRA was providing to support farmers in utilising new technologies to increase productivity. Such support is provided through the Countryside Productivity scheme, part of the Rural Development Programme for England, Eustice noted. The first example he gave was EU-related: the European Innovation Partnership for Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability (EIP-Agri) provides grant support to projects which link research and innovation with farming or forestry practices, and capital grant funding to drive best practice, innovation and targeted projects for priorities such as animal health, resource management, and arable and horticultural productivity.
However, wider government initiatives include the Agri-Tech Strategy launched in 2013: £60 million is being invested in a catalyst to fund agri-tech projects and £80m is invested in four world class Centres for Agricultural Innovation, developing skills and capability in the food and farming supply chain.
Also more positively, a question from Craig Whittaker (Con, Calder Valley) highlighted the publication of the UK Food and Drink International Action Plan 2016-2020 last month. This sets out a Government and industry strategy to grow UK food and drink exports, identifying nine campaigns in 18 target markets. Good progress is being made in negotiations with USA, China and Japan on several commodities, Eustice said.
Finally, the amount of money being spent on bovine tuberculosis, despite the volume of slaughter diminishing, was as high in 2015-16 as it was the year before. At £20.9m, a question from Rob Marris (Lab, Wolverhampton SW) revealed, it has dropped only £7.5m since the peak seven years ago. Not many cost savings there, then.