They’ve happened before and there’ll be plenty more but last night I attended my first EU Brexit debate. It was of course all referenced to farming and the food chain, organised by the British Guild of Agricultural Journalists.
Was I with one side before? Nope. Am I sided now? Nope. Not even with Owen Paterson’s compelling arguments and persuasive oratory for the exit camp.
It’s an important debate to have but difficult when there is so much unknown. As lawyer Sian Edmunds from Burgess Salmon rightly pointed out last night it’s unfair on any industry to ask them to be entrepreneurial and take risks when they don’t know where they stand.
There are plenty of other risks for farmers when dealing with animals, land, global commodities, not to mention the weather. I’ve met many a brave farmer but few who want to gamble when so much is at stake.
Which brings me to what exactly is at stake: the UK’s biggest manufacturing sector. Yes, that’s right. Food and drink is the country’s biggest industry that actually makes anything. Bigger than cars and aerospace combined.
The UK food chain is worth over £100bn to the UK economy, employing one in eight people. Over 16,000 new food and drink products are introduced every year – second only to the United States.
In short – this is big business. And anything that affects it will be felt by well, anyone who likes three meals a day, a pint of British ale… you get the picture.
And that’s why I was surprised by the Secretary of State’s comment last week at the Oxford Farming Conference that no one is working on a plan B for farming in the event that Britain votes to leave the European Union.
How can the public ever have a proper debate about this and make an informed vote if they aren’t presented with the options?
How can the government not have given any thought to how the biggest manufacturing sector would survive if its terms of business changed?
I hope we get the answers before the referendum is held. Meurig Raymond, NFU President, hopes to have the union’s stance around Easter time, when he expects to know more on the terms David Cameron’s managed to secure.
His main concern surrounds the industry’s competitiveness if the Common Agricultural Policy payments are cut or scrapped.
But Owen Paterson MP, former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs warns the industry to avoid making the debate just about money.
He’s right; saying “give me, give me, give me the cash” will damage the public’s image of farming. It will also take away from the wider issues of the Brexit debate.
But there’s no harm in saying “give me, give me, give me the facts”.