January 4, 2017 / 4:14 PM / a year ago

UK government seeks to assuage Brexit concerns of farmers

OXFORD, England (Reuters) - Britain’s farmers said on Wednesday their main concerns as the nation prepares to leave the European Union are how much access they will have to the EU’s single market and its skilled farm workers.

Meurig Raymond, president of the National Farmers Union, told Reuters at the annual Oxford Farming Conference, that tariff-free access to the single market “has got to be the top priority.”

“The number two priority is access to competent labour for seasonal and permanent work on farms,” he said.

The European Union represents the most important export market for many agricultural commodities.

Britain exported 2.86 million tonnes of wheat in the 2015/16 season, for example, of which 80 percent was shipped to the EU.

Farming and environment minister Andrea Leadsom sought to reassure the industry: “It is our absolute and clear intention to maintain as low tariffs as possible, zero tariffs where we can, and we will be negotiating the best possible deal for UK farmers and food producers.”

Leadsom also said she knew how important seasonal labour from the EU was to farm businesses in Britain.

“Access of labour is very much part, an important part, of our current discussions and we’re committed to working with you to make sure you have the right people with the right skills,” she said.

Leadsom said there was scope to increase agricultural exports to countries outside the EU including China, India and the United Arab Emirates.

“Our core strength is our world-leading position in animal welfare, food safety and food traceability,” she said.

She said leaving the EU would make it possible to develop an agricultural policy designed specifically for Britain rather than the entire EU.

“In leaving the EU, we’ve been handed a once in a generation opportunity to take Britain forward; a real opportunity to thrive,” she said.

“We can design, from first principles, an agricultural system that works for us.”

Leadsom said she would be launching a major consultation on future UK agricultural policy in the near future.

“We’ve got this great opportunity to pull together a policy which is fit for purpose in the UK. That is a challenge for all of us,” NFU president Raymond said.

Reporting by Nigel Hunt; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle

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