China has already proved successful for pig industry exports, and the beef and sheep sectors could be next said Peter Hardwick, head of exports at AHDB, during the NFU South East livestock conference in Surrey.

Developing new export markets will be critical to the long term survival of the red meat sector in the UK, Mr Hardwick added. “The livestock sector is highly dependent on the European Union market for trade. However, the biggest growth markets are from non EU countries, such as the Far East.”

China accounts for nearly all of the global growth in expenditure on sheep meat and it will be vital that UK lamb producers can access this market.

After the conference, Mr Hardwick told South East Farmer that securing market access for pork to China took four years, and we have been exporting since 2011. “China is now the single largest export market for pork,” Mr Hardwick said. “Last year, we exported pork and pork offal worth £74 million to the Chinese.”

Beef and sheep exports to China mainly go from Australia, New Zealand and the United States, and Hungary is the only EU country to have market access. Currently, the UK exports about five per cent of sheep meat outside the EU, about 10% of beef and 40% of pig meat, most of which goes to China.

In May this year, the Chinese did their first inspection for beef access, during which they were mainly concerned with BSE controls and how the UK handles BSE specified risk materials.

AHDB hopes the Chinese will return in the autumn and afterwards they could announce that the ban on beef exports due to BSE has been lifted. “Then negotiations have to start before we can secure a protocol which says that UK standards meet Chinese requirements,” Mr Hardwick said. Eventually, the UK should end up with an export health certificate.

But he added that the chances of achieving market access by 19 March 2019 – the end of the two years set for Brexit negotiations – were remote. “I can safely say they are nil because we will not have gone through the process.”
Nick Von Westenholz, NFU director of EU exit and international trade, also spoke at the conference and said afterwards that the arrangement with China on pork was not based on a trade agreement but rather on veterinary standards. “There will be tariffs applied to those goods,” he added.

Currently, Mr Von Westenholz said the UK enjoys tariff free trade with the rest of the EU. Once the UK has left the EU, it will come under World Trade Organisation rules. “These require that free trade deals have zero tariffs on all goods.”

But looking for trade deals outside the EU would risk allowing food into the UK produced to different standards. “That could mean that farmers here are uncompetitive because of their higher production costs.” For this and other reasons, Mr Von Westenholz said the UK cannot “automatically expect a big one size fits all trade agreement with China.”

Open market access to the EU is still the best option for UK farmers because so much of our trading is done with the bloc, said Mr Von Westenholz. “It would be very disruptive if we left and our trade was subject to customs checks, tariffs and all the rest.”

NFU South East livestock board chair Steve Conisbee, a Surrey farmer, grazier and butcher, said he hoped China would take some of the slack out of the world market. “Even if you are not supplying the Chinese market, that could help,” he said. Mr Conisbee does not export, and much of his beef production goes through F. Conisbee and Son’s two butchers shops.

He hopes the discerning consumers who buy his beef because of its provenance, his husbandry and care for the environment will continue to do so after Brexit. But he is concerned about trade deals which could undermine his production once the UK has left the EU. “Let’s hope there is legislation which tries to keep some of the competitors out.”

Nonetheless, Mr Connisbee is expanding his beef herd and is taking on another farm. He currently has about 400 animals but has been up to 600 and could go up to between 800 and 1,000 in future. “We will be growing more of our own barley to feed our own cattle.”

Mr Connisbee already grazes National Trust ground and puts some of his meat through those properties. He is planning to graze around golf courses and hopes to supply the clubs with meat, too.

Pictured from the left at the NFU South East livestock conference are Nathan Ward, Kantar Worldpanel business unit director of meat, fish and poultry; Peter Hardwick, AHDB head of exports; Nick Von Westenholz, NFU director of EU exit and international trade; and NFU South East livestock board chair Steve Conisbee