With a total organic retail market of almost £2bn (€2.5bn), and with the UK still the major market for Irish organic food, the potential impact of a Brexit on the Irish organic sector is large.
Recently a Teagasc report revealed some Brexit-related concerns for Irish agri-food.
“The UK market is more important to the Irish agri-food sector than is the case for other sectors of the Irish economy,” the report found.
Britain is by far our largest agri-food trading partner. According to the CSO, in 2015 Ireland exported almost €5.1bn worth of agricultural products, while imports from the UK were worth €3.8bn
A presumption is made that should the UK leave, it would do so around 2020. Up until then, a period of trade uncertainty would occur.
The UK has voted consistently at EU level to radically reform CAP, in a way which significantly reduces subsidies to farmers.
And yet, in the event of Brexit, some sort of replacement to CAP would have to be introduced.
It is noteworthy that the National Farmers’ Union for England and Wales came out last week against Brexit.
It was also revealed in a select committee presentation at Westminster by the Ulster Farmers Union (Northern Ireland equivalent of IFA) that farming there is 85% dependent on CAP.
They expressed concerns at the track record of the UK government in supporting farmers above and beyond the CAP.
While this may concern the agriculture lobby, this lobby in the UK is far weaker than in France or Ireland.
The UK is also heavily dependent on food imports, operating more a procurement than production policy for decades now.
So the UK could go in many directions post-Brexit — more self-sufficiency, as Russia is undertaking in the face of EU sanctions, is ideologically unlikely.
A more likely option is selected bilateral customs agreements to retain imports, with significant others such as Ireland.
“In a worse case scenario, Irish exports of dairy products, beef, and other agri-food items could face import tariffs that would make it less likely that they would be imported onto the UK market,” Teagasc found.
Economist Trevor Donnellan says in the report that a Brexit may mean a reduction “in the value of Irish agri-food exports of anything from €150m (1.5%) to €800m (7.2%) per annum”.
The column has queried various stakeholders in the organic sector for thoughts on organic food exports and Brexit.
In reference to the sector, the Department of Agriculture pointed to four main areas of concern: “Tariffs and trade arrangements, the effect on the EU budget, the implementation of regulations and standards, and the operation of customs controls and veterinary certification.
"There are also important and complex issues to be addressed in the fisheries area.”
On organic farming and food, it said: “It is anticipated that there could be disruption of trade in the short term, with potential increased bureaucracy and costs for exporters.
"Currently both countries are producing organic food to harmonised EU regulatory standards. Any deviation from that, or establishment of independent standards by the UK, would require Irish producers exporting to the UK to meet such standards.”
It said: “From an EU organic trade perspective, if such an exit occurs, the UK would be considered a third country.
"To facilitate trade in organic produce therefore would possibly require the UK and EU to negotiate a reciprocal organic trade agreement, which would take time.”
John Brennan of the Leitrim Organic Farmers’ Co-op said: “We rely on them far less than heretofore. However, a weaker sterling will be bad in general for exports to that market in the short term.”
He added: “On a more sobering note, we are all going more veggie — and that’s a trend that’s not going away.”
We might add: Certainly not in the UK.
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