Britain’s pig industry is part of the backbone of our farming economy. It is worth £1.6 billion annually to farms, and with food retail and export values added in, contributes £14 billion a year to the UK and many thousands of jobs.
This essential part of British farming is near collapse, however, after UK export licences with China were suspended ten months ago. China pays a premium for British pork and the loss of this trade will cost British farmers £50 million a year and thousands of jobs. The impact in supply chains will be even bigger.
This trade suspension came at the worst possible time, as the sector was already losing trade with the EU and is facing rising CO2 and feed costs, as well as labour shortages. As a result, many farms have a backlog of animals, which will quickly lead to welfare problems and result in a large-scale cull of healthy livestock.
This is a disastrous situation for farmers, many of whom have recorded significant losses for two consecutive quarters, amassing high levels of debt. Stress and mental health issues are on the rise. For all these reasons, and for the sake of animal welfare, our government needs to make much more effort to restart pork trade with China and avert this crisis.
The export licences were initially surrendered voluntarily at the behest of UK government officials in DEFRA. After coronavirus outbreaks among workers in processing sites at Ashton Under Lyne in Greater Manchester, Watton in Norfolk and Brechin in Scotland, it was normal practice internationally to suspend licenses until the issues were resolved. They were dealt with very swiftly, but the licences were not reinstated, despite all approvals and site audits being in order. These sites are major regional hubs that underpin vast areas of the UK pork market. The Brechin site, for example, serves the entirety of Scotland.
We have had numerous meetings with Government, including DEFRA and the Department for International Trade, who say they have written to Chinese officials, but believe this is a global problem resulting from Chinese protectionism. This cannot be right, however. Countries such as Denmark and the US, which also had to surrender licences, received them back after senior representatives made the effort to lobby their Chinese counterparts.
We need our government to fight for its farmers too. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has to step up and encourage China to re-list the processing plants as soon as possible. The Foreign Secretary herself needs to get the message directly to her Beijing counterpart that UK meat processing sites are among the safest in the world, and that this vital trade between our two countries should continue.
Given the damage already done, however, there also needs to be a wider rescue package for the UK pig industry, similar to help that was offered in other home nations, including Scotland and Northern Ireland.
If nothing is done, the pig industry will head into collapse. As of today, we are set to lose around 22,000 sows from the UK herd, a number that will quickly rise. Farmers will be driven to cull healthy animals across the UK – a devastating outcome that is not only at odds with animal welfare, but will make us ever-more reliant on the EU for our food security.
By acting now, ministers can prevent this and restore a vital channel of trade that is preserving many thousands of livelihoods in our rural economy. Ministers owe it to our farming communities to do all they can to resolve this issue.
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