Week 19 news grist

Events that added grist to the news mill during week 19, 2024.

The descriptions and content of these brief items are kept as short as possible: if you want to follow up the details of a story, click the link that will always be provided.

Is Labour doing the right thing when it accuses the Tories of “gaslighting” the state of the British economy, that is to say querying the tory grasp of economic indicators to unsettle conservative assumptions? Top of the list: will Thursday’s meeting at the Bank of England really decide to keep interest at 5.25%?

Read it here: https://news.sky.com/story/government-gaslighting-public-about-state-of-economy-labour-claims-13130738

Livestock farmers are facing the threat of wind-borne midges carrying a new strain of blue tongue virus across the North Sea, potentially infecting British sheep and cattle. The illness is established in northern Europe, where it causes significant livestock losses.

Read it here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-68944155

Tea time: Manchester Evening News parent editor Emma Gill compares retailer brand tea bags after a series of substantial price rises.

Read it here: https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/whats-on/reviews/i-tried-cheapest-supermarket-tea-29098610

The outlook for olive oil supplies is as grim as ever. Sarah Butler lines up the industry’s international data and tells readers of The Guardian to expect more of the same. Urban Food Chains ran an overview a a few months ago.

Read Sarah Butler’s piece here: https://www.theguardian.com/business/article/2024/may/07/extra-virgin-olive-oil-prices-global-production

Good news from pesticide campaigners: PAN Europe has become the first civil society to win a substantive case in Europe’s highest court. Pesticide Action Europe challenged the absence of any new scientific data in support of product approval renewals. The EU Court of Justice found in favour of the campaigners, adding that authorisations and renewals at national level should be fully documented and should no longer rely on the work of other member states when renewing product licences. The decision should stop the endless re-use of data going back decades. Read more on the PAN Europe website.

Defection of the week: Dover MP Natalie Elphicke crossed the floor of the House of Commons to join the Labour party benches. It will be interesting to see how her position will change on things like the Brexit border tax. To help readers spot the changes, I downloaded a couple of posts on May 9 from https://natalieelphicke.com, laying out her position before she jumped ship. The original posts were here: one makes the case for providing adequate funding to allow Dover Port Health Authority to maintain its biosecurity targets and the other highlights ways in which Blockchain applications can speed up border checks. Just in case the originals disappear, download the May 9 versions here and here.

Strong European cheese is a taste challenge to consumers in south east Asia, where the strong flavours and live textures literally get up the noses of potential export customers in cities like Singapore. The BBC filed this report about the seasoned export cheese sales teams from countries such as France, Italy or Switzerland. They are very careful not to push their challenging products until they have earned the confidence of prospective customers. British cheese sales teams headed for Asia with high hopes of conquering sales prospects with cheeses like Stinking Bishop. The broadcasters learnt that the British team was only allowed to promote their strong-smelling cheese at the show because they paid to exhibit at the show on the spot with their own money.

Read the full story here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/articles/c03ded49zw2o

Oxford Real Farming Conference 2025 supporter tickets are now on sale: follow the link…

How many of us knew that IKEA is a major landholder in Romania? Click the link and find out why this might matter. https://action.eko.org/a/stop-ikea-from-destroying-europe-s-last-ancient-forests

Representatives of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) have been meeting DEFRA ministers and officials to request a post-Brexit review of water quality standards, according to The Guardian. (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/article/2024/may/10/farmers-union-lobbied-to-increase-pesticide-limit-in-uk-drinking-water). 

The NFU knows the rules on water and reminds its members of their obligations. (https://www.nfuonline.com/updates-and-information/farming-rules-for-water-what-you-need-to-know/) Shame they want to move the goalposts, though.

Brexit’s final nail in the coffin (1)

On April 30 the government will roll out the second phase of its Border Target Operating Model (BTOM). The result is likely to be total chaos on a number of counts. 

There is growing unease about the wall of silence surrounding  the computer system at the heart of the BTOM, called the Single Trade Window (STW). This will be the one and only way of getting data into the system. The final version*⁠1 of the BTOM guide, published on February 11 states: “ …the Single Trade Window could be fully operational in 2027.” 

There are a number of reasons why this could be awkward, but one will do. The STW calculates the aggregate cost of wear and tear caused by lorry traffic to roadways at ports. This operational detail is  used to set a levy called the Common User Charge (CUC). This is payable to HMRC within four weeks. While the STW sets a figure for Government operated ports, private operators were invited to fix their own charges, as they would do for anything else. There appear to be a number of sticking points.  Dover and Portsmouth,  the two busiest ports in the UK, both happen to be owned and operated privately.

The Common User Charge scheme comes from the European Directive 1999/62/EC, which was passed by the European Parliament and voted by the Council of 17 June 1999.  The EU framed it as a way of charging heavy goods vehicles for the use of infrastructure such as national road networks. It is no more than a rehashed EU pipe dream.

The scheme was never developed into a fully operational model in Europe. However, faced with the challenge of organising a system of robust controls on EU imports, the UK government saved a lot of  time and effort by reviving the Common User Charge. Stakeholders believed that new processes would cost a lot of money, so the UK government took them at their word and came up with a scheme to absorb their cash. Whitehall covered its back by saying that future costs would reflect how businesses are adapting their working practices and supply chains to the new rules.

The architects of the project assume that a budget of £330 million a year would cover roadway wear and tear arising from EU imports. On the basis of that figure, civil servants argue that the new system represents a  cost of 0.13% of all EU imports, then valued at £259 billion pounds. The value of such arguments cannot be guaranteed, but it is definitely an advantage to have two numbers, one of them large and impressive. However, these assumptions were never put to the test.

On Wednesday April 5, DEFRA unveiled a radical restructuring for the Common User Charge. Officials expect the CUC to be set between £20 and £43 per consignment: there are often multiple consignments in a load. The Government predicts that the new system will generate a 0.2% rise in the cost of food over three years.

1 Feb-11-24-Final_Border_Target_Operating_Model.pdf para 350 page 88

Imminent change

Since leaving the EU, the UK government has operated transitional biosecurity arrangements, including one called Place of Destination. After a number of postponements, the scheme is finally being withdrawn on April 30 to make way for the long-awaited Border Target Operating Model (BTOM).

This will redraw the map for traders, legislators and consumers alike, including a number of far-reaching modifications to the way the border will be managed. It marks the start of a shift away from EU standards to a home-grown hodge podge. In its day, Place of Destination allowed businesses to do their own product checks at a time when UK border facilities were either not available or still under construction.

DEFRA’s own description is an opaque blend of jargon and legalese: “The PoD scheme not only afforded flexibility to businesses as they adjusted to the new requirements following the end of the transition period, but also allowed the UK government time to thoroughly design BCP infrastructure and processes, maintaining frictionless trade, while protecting GB biosecurity.” The present outlook is not encouraging.

On Monday, March 12, the EFRA Select Committee met under the chairmanship of Dr Neil Hudson to discuss the ongoing shortage of vets to carry out routine health checks on inbound food products. The UK’s chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss told the committee that when the UK left Europe there was a shortage of vets in the order of 11%, and, that to her present knowledge, this was still the case. This sounds odd, since the demand for routine veterinary validations for food imports is rising steadily. Westminster has known for years that the food industry was facing a skills gap. A House of Lords committee warned of this in 2017 [click link to see context] and the idea that demand could be static is frankly a non-starter.

245% duty shock for UK cheese

British cheese exports to Canada will face duty of 245% next year, once the third country duty-free quota is exhausted. Some 95% of this quota is already taken by products arriving from Norway and Switzerland, leaving very little for shipments to any other third country.

This slap in the face for British cheesemakers comes as Canadian negotiators came amid talks on the implementation of the much-vaunted bilateral trade deal. Refusing to roll over previous extensions to zero percent duty available under former EU terms, the so-called cheese letters, the decision vapourises pre-Brexit claims of extensive growth in UK food exports. These will in fact be treated like any other third country products, in the absence from specific terms agreed during the framework negotiations. Last year, the UK exported cheese worth nearly GBP 19 million to Canada.

Growing concern

Hundreds of acres of cultivable farmland will be cleared to make way for houses as far as the eye can see. In the coming months, Mid Sussex District Council will hear applications from developers wanting to build 1500 houses between the villages of Ansty and Cuckfield. As well as residential properties, there will be shops and amenities in addition to a headline-grabbing 30% allocation of social housing. Whether or not the developments will ever release as much as 30% for social housing remains to be seen, but it needs to be there at the outset..

This major development plan faces problems, however. To begin with the new homes will generate additional demand for water in a part of the world where demand for water is already comparabl;e to desert regions.The loss of 250 acres of farmland is nothing short of disastrous: the UK cannot afford to throw away productive land.

Hard cheese

Irish dairy farmers are seeing huge falls in demand and output in the wake of Brexit. The Irish Creameries’ Suppliers Association ICMS this week revealed that this was an ongoing situation and not a passing phase. Not surprisingly, the ICMS has some very substantial members who between them exported more than 80,000 tonnes of block Cheddar a year to the UK. Allow 13 tonnes of milk to make a tonne of Cheddar and store it for a year or two at a creamery, and it adds up to a significant business commitment.

Those with long memories will remember former farm minister Liz Truss regaling the 2014 Tory party conference with a hatchet job on British cheese imports. Surprisingly little change from today’s outbursts, really. Shows how little she learnt at DEFRA.

Westminster faces customs stalemate

The Scottish parliament is accusing Westminster of intransigence over the halted building work at the Scottish car ferryport of Cairnryan. Work to build a Border Controls Post (BCP) started after getting a government green light last year. Since then, construction has ground to a halt, as Westminster has refused to give a binding commitment to fund the BCP in full.

Sailings from Stranraer were transferred to the nearby Dumfries and Galloway port of Craigryan back in 2012, for operational reasons. Wholly-owned by Larne Harbour Ltd, Craigryan is a part of the P&O landside portfolio. It can operate up to 16 sailings a day, serving destinations in Northern Ireland.

While Brexit negotiations were in progress, Westminster was committed to funding border infrastructure in full. The Scottish parliament is concerned that it may end up footing part of the bill for port infrastructure on a privately-owned facility. There are also political sensitivities about a requirement for customs facilities on what is currently an internal border.

The implementation of Sanitary and PhytoSanitary (SPS) checks that are the reason for building a BCP in the first place has not happened. Successive start dates in 2021 and 2022 were announced and cancelled: Westminster is currently planning to start SPS checks on livestock and animal products in July, although the BCP site at Cairnryan might not be operational by then.

From a commercial point of view, ferry traffic patterns have changed since Brexit, making the business case and the requirement for a BCP a moot point. The introduction of inbound SPS checks for the UK cannot be evaded forever.

Datacrumb 2

Farmed birds need to be robust to survive the rigours of modern agriculture; this is reflected in veterinary inspection standards. Spare a thought, then, for the lovers of caged birds, such as canaries. Veterinary regulations for travel between trading blocs require the birds to be swabbed in the vent and on the tonsils. Since swabbing a canary’s tonsils will kill the bird, they are no longer traded between the EU and third countries, such as the UK.

Investigating hydrogen

For the past eighty years scientists have been rolling up their sleeves at the Glensaugh research farm and finding robust answers to the problems facing the agricultural sector. Perched on the east coast of Scotland not far from Aberdeen, the site is set to become a carbon neutral farming environment once its building programme comes on stream, pencilled in for 2025.

BBC journalist Nancy Nicolson visited Glensaugh for an edition of On Your Farm, which aired on April 30 and is still available on BBC Sounds. Water is the key to the project, using an industrial scale electrolyser to generate hydrogen that will power tractors and heavy machinery. This will in turn be powered by an array of green energy sources, such as turbines and solar panels.

A headline figure for the project is four million pounds: this is explained in part by the additional cost of being early adopters of technology that is still in development. This project will cast a light on the current operational energy needs of a one thousand hectare estate. Investment on this scale in one agricultural location is based on the assumption that the rest of the national economy will still be functioning in the future, in a recognisable form. We are still a long way from converting urban centres into sustainable economic entities.

Listen to Nancy Nicolson here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m001lhz1?partner=uk.co.bbc&origin=share-mobile

Taking sides with bacon

Until the latter years of the twentieth century, bacon followed a parallel path to the rest of the pig sector, taking its share of knocks on the way. Processors could sell as many loins of bacon as they could get their hands on, but they were held back by a balancing act, otherwise known as balancing the carcase.

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