Rob Mutimer is Chair of the National Pig Association. This is a sponsored post by the National Pig Association.
Britain’s pig industry is the backbone of many small towns and rural communities across the country. Pig farming is worth £1.6 billion annually, and adding food retail and export values brings the total over £14 billion a year.
This essential sector is now in dire straits, however. More than 100,000 pigs were backed up on farms in the early months of this year due to a perfect storm of events, including Brexit restrictions on exports, labour shortages and pork plant closures due to Covid-19.
Against a tide of falling trade with the EU, our growing pork export market to China is a vital lifeline for many farming communities. China pays a premium for our pork, and exports have grown six-fold in value since 2015, creating new jobs and growth across the UK.
This trade is, however, being hamstrung by the loss of China export licences at three major pork processing sites: Ashton Under Lyne in Greater Manchester, Watton in Norfolk and Brechin in Scotland.
The export licences were voluntarily surrendered 10 months ago at the advice of DEFRA, after Coronavirus affected some of the sites’ workers. This is normal practice internationally, and the issues were swiftly resolved, but China has refused to reinstate the licences once the issues were resolved.
This is despite all reapproval documentation and site audits being in order and other sites with the same issues in other countries, like Denmark, having had their licenses reinstated. Our liaison with Beijing officials indicates that assurances from industry of the safety of our sites are not enough. The authorities are seeking representations from the UK Government itself.
The suspension of exports to China has had a dramatic effect on prices and many pig farmers, already operating at a loss due to the pandemic, want to exit the sector.
This is why we urgently need the Foreign Secretary to help unblock this. Last month, we wrote to him as part of a united industry call for assistance, including the National Farmers Union, Food and Drink Federation, National Pig Association and a host of others. We have had no response.
The direct losses at these three sites alone are amounting to around £50 million a year, but as these are major regional hubs, the impact is much wider. The Brechin site, for example, supports the entire Scottish pork industry. If the ban continues, it will put many tens of thousands of British jobs in farming, processing and retail at risk. This makes us more dependent on the EU, as British farmers currently only produce 40 per cent of the pork we consume.
So where do we go from here?
Ultimately, ministers must step up work with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to encourage China to re-list the processing plants as soon as possible. British farms and meat processing sites are among the safest in the world, and there is no reason for not relisting the affected sites.
In the meantime, ministers should also look at a compensation package for those in the industry that are most heavily impacted, similar to help that has been offered in other home nations, including Scotland and Northern Ireland.
If nothing is done, we fear the pig industry is heading towards collapse, which would affect tens of thousands of jobs in rural communities and small towns across the country. By acting now, we could prevent more pig farmers going out of business and leaving empty shelves in the supermarket.
There is a bigger prize here, too. The value of the pig industry’s trade with China runs to tens of millions a year, dwarfing the value of new trade won elsewhere, including the recent deal with Australia, for example. By reopening our market with China we would have the beginnings of a real success story for the UK’s post-Brexit trade, and for the livelihoods of many thousands of farmers and workers in our industry.