The Big Interview

Food industry urged to find one voice on Brexit: NFU

By Mike Stones

- Last updated on GMT

NFU boss Terry Jones urged the food and farming industry to speak with one voice over Brexit
NFU boss Terry Jones urged the food and farming industry to speak with one voice over Brexit

Related tags: Food industry, World trade organization, International trade

National Farmers Union director general Terry Jones tells Mike Stones the food industry needs to speak with unity to make the best of Brexit.

“Look closely, and you’ll notice there’s still dirt under my fingernails,”​ says Terry Jones. It’s a telling remark that spans neatly his experience of leading three of food’s most influential trade bodies.

Experience he will need, as he directs the response of Britain’s biggest farming union to the challenges of Brexit, while urging the food sector to find one voice to lobby government.

Jones returned to the National Farmers Union (NFU) last April as director general, after a little under two years at the helm of the Provision Trade Federation (PTF).

Before that, he was director of communications at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), having joined the organisation following a previous nine-year stint at the NFU.

It is a CV that leaves Jones particularly well-placed to respond to the many challenges of Britain’s EU exit.

But, ever the consummate positive communicator, he sidesteps a gentle invitation to share my horror at the monumental challenges facing the food industry posed by Britain’s shock decision to quit the EU.

“If you think about it too much, it will overwhelm you,”​ Jones concedes discretely. “But if you break it down into small chunks, it becomes more manageable.”

Managing Brexit will be best accomplished if the whole food industry – farmers, food manufacturers and retailers – manages to find a single voice with which to lobby government, he insists.

So, chunking down the challenges of Brexit, Jones identifies three key areas: trade, access to labour and the shape of domestic agricultural policy. He is unequivocal about trade.

Continued access to the EU’s Single Market of 500M consumers is essential if the UK farming and food industry is to prosper, he says. As an example, more than one third (38%) of UK lamb is exported to the continent, highlights Jones.

However, last month, the prime minister ruled out membership of the Single Market.

Single Market access is crucial (Back to top)

Jones is not alone in viewing Single Market tariff-free access as crucial to the food sector’s continued prosperity.

Last month, the NFU was joined by some of Britain’s biggest food businesses in signing an open letter to Prime Minister Theresa May published in The Times.

Signed by the bosses of 75 organisations, employing about 1M people with a combined turnover of £92bn, the letter urged the government to protect access both to the Single Market and sources of migrant labour after Brexit.

It’s an example of how effective the whole food industry can be in lobbying government when it manages to find one voice, says Jones.

“The supply industry has come together very quickly – as shown by the letter in The Times, spearheaded by the farming unions, when 75 real businesses, rather than associations, came together to say what the food sector needs on trade and labour. That really got some cut through – people sat up and listened.”

The nightmare scenario on trade would arise, he says, if the UK chose to slash tariffs on food imports, in a bid to lower domestic food prices, thereby opening the door to cut-price imports of dubious quality, which would undermine UK production.

Jones again uses the example of lamb, which has a Common Customs Tariff, charged on products imported into the EU, of 67%.

“The real concern – particularly if you are in a WTO​ [World Trade Organisation] scenario … in the post Brexit world, is that you can have much reduced food prices, but the way​ [government] would seek to achieve that is through unilateral disarmament on import tariffs.

“Because our tariffs are higher in food, that approach would be potentially catastrophic for certain sectors,”​ he says.

“It is very important that the whole industry – UK Food and Farming plc – as with lots of things on Brexit, should remain united. We should talk​ [to government and the public] about the importance of a strong, productive, progressive and profitable UK food and farming sector and the role it can play in keeping food prices down.”

‘Profitable UK food and farming’ (Back to top)

That is a much better solution than simply “pulling some levers”,​ on trade, he believes.

When it comes to defining the food and farming industry’s labour needs, Jones prefers the phrase “competent and reliable”.

Attracting enough labour to meet both the sector’s seasonal needs and its permanent requirement for a new generation of young talent – against the background of an ageing population and close to full employment – will be a formidable challenge, he acknowledges.

Key flashpoints are the horticultural sector, including vegetable packing, with its heavy reliance on seasonal migrant labour, and meat processing. But a wide range of manufacturers freely acknowledge their reliance on non-UK labour.

“The UK needs somewhere between 90,000 to 95,000 non-UK global workers just to pick and pack fruit and vegetables,”​ says Jones.

Part of the answer to the looming labour shortage, he believes, lies in a non-EU seasonal agricultural workers permit scheme. Securing the terms of post-Brexit trade and access to labour are both equally important.

“Having talked to food manufacturers and processors that buy NFU members’ products, it is very difficult to prioritise labour over trade.

 “What processors are saying to me is: ‘If we cannot get people into our factories to cut meat, to process dairy and to chop up vegetables – then it does not matter what the trade deal is ​[after Brexit] because these businesses won’t function.’ I do see it as the most pressing question we need to answer.”

The third challenge facing UK farmers is the thorny question of shaping a new domestic agriculture policy to succeed the much-hated but ultimately generous (to farmers) Common Agricultural Policy.

Jones concedes that there is no ring fencing of budgets at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

However, he is encouraged by ministers’ pledge to retain support payments until at least 2020. It is also likely that Britain will retain access to the Single Market over a similar period, he says.

‘Hold back on investment decisions’ (Back to top)

But he acknowledges the farming and food industry investment cycle is much longer than two years. “You are seeing people​ [farmers] and people in the food industry hold back​ on [investment] decisions.”

The solution is effective and unified communication to government, he says. “We’ve got to continue to keep up the pressure on the UK government to promote long-term confidence.”

That can best be achieved, he believes, by explaining how the farming and food industry underpins the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, supports jobs, environmental management and tourism, with day trips to the English countryside alone valued at £8.4bn in 2014.

And now is the time to exert that influence, with the forthcoming two Green Paper policy documents promised on food and farming and a public consultation promised on food, farming and the environment.

The best chance to influence an outcome favourable to farming and food is to find a united industry voice, he repeats.

After senior management roles at FDF, NFU and PTF, Jones is well-placed to see the value of a strong partnership between farmers and food manufacturers.

“At its most simple, it’s that symbiosis of raw material from one business and added value from another,”​ says Jones. “But there is an increasing understanding of what different links in the food chain do.

“If we do not have a thriving and productive agriculture, then it will have a deleterious effect on food processing in the UK. Similarly, if we lose our​ [food manufacturing] infrastructure – because of labour shortage problems – then, you will need to export our products to places where they can be processed.

“There’s never been a more important time for these two partners to work together.”

If anyone can help make that happen, surely it is the food industry leader who clearly doesn’t mind getting his hands – and fingernails – dirty.

Meanwhile, click here to watch our exclusive video interview with Terry Jones as he explains what more the food industry should do to secure the next generation of young talent.

Personal

TERRY JONES

JOB TITLE:​ Director general, National Farmers Union.

AGE:​ 42

DOMESTICS:​ Married with two children and one novice gun dog.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS:​ Returning to the NFU. Enthusing young people to become involved in the food industry. Having campaigned to probe abuses of market power in the supply chain, helping to get the Groceries Supply Code of Practice set up. Raising the profile of the UK’s largest manufacturing sector to put it on an equal footing with aerospace and automotive. Helping the industry cope with devastating disease outbreaks, such as foot and mouth disease.

AWAY FROM WORK:​ Time with family and training Beti, his cocker spaniel gun dog.

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