By Mark Williams, chief executive, British Egg Industry Council
2020 was an eventful year, with plenty of challenges and changes that we have all had to adapt to. Like in the UK, many countries are struggling with the global Covid-19 pandemic that has undermined almost every developed economy in the world, and claimed over a million lives worldwide, and over 70,000 in the UK. The UK has just entered a double dip recession, as a direct result of the virus and the successive lockdowns that have been needed to stem the infection rate that has been rising exponentially over the past few weeks. This will undoubtedly continue to impact those businesses that supply the food service sector, which has been badly hit given the shutdown of caterers, restaurants, bars and cafes. Even though the UK is making progress with the vaccination rollout, it will be many months before we return to a semblance of normality. Until then, we must continue to take every reasonable precaution to protect ourselves, especially those in the high-risk categories, who are earmarked to receive the vaccine as a priority.
2020 was also a challenging year for our industry, as cases of highly pathogenic H5N8 Avian Influenza were detected both in poultry flocks and wild birds. In fact, even before the turn of the year we had seen more cases of H5N8 HPAI than during the whole of 2016/17 AI ‘season’, which is of major concern. It is also disappointing to note that the virus has been detected in poultry flocks in Northern Ireland, which given its geographical location, would not normally be the case. What this should serve to remind everyone in the UK ‘egg chain’ is that no one can afford to take their eye off the ball in terms of maintaining the highest levels of biosecurity … biosecurity … biosecurity.
We did have some good news on Christmas Eve, and that was the draft trade agreement between the UK and the EU. It had taken many months of negotiations, and there were several points in time in which it looked like no-deal was a very real outcome. This would have been disastrous for the UK and for the EU, especially through the prism of Covid-19 having already decimated many European economies. It would have of course been just as damaging for UK agriculture, as well as for British consumers, who would certainly have had to face rising food prices, that would harm the most financially vulnerable – particularly those who have lost their jobs and livelihoods due to the pandemic, or those who have lost a third of their monthly income after being furloughed. The draft agreement is more than likely to be formally agreed by the EU institutions within the coming weeks, it offers the UK quota and tariff free access to the world’s largest market.
The reality is the deal will never offer us the same benefits as being inside the Single Market. There will be an economic cost for our industry in terms of red tape, which we did not have to contend with during the transition period. These costs must be absorbed by businesses that operate within our industry, and ultimately the consumer is likely to pay more for the product. The UK Government cannot just say the UK-EU trade relationship is settled, they must continue to work with the UK agriculture sector over the coming months and years to push the EU to agree to reduce red tape whenever possible, as an equitable outcome for both sides. This will of course be intrinsically linked to how the Government protects our high standards of animal welfare, food safety, and both consumer, and environmental protection.
The BEIC will continue to hold the Government to account regarding trade negotiations they are pursing around the world, which we will do by working with the Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC), and through ongoing bilateral engagement with officials and policymakers across the UK. 2021 and beyond are years that will see many challenges, as well as opportunities, for British agriculture to further innovate and flourish, but only with the right tools and the right policy landscape. The UK could be at the forefront of an international drive towards a more sustainable model of free trade that would demonstrate real substance to the Global Britain brand.