The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) has said it would back an agreement in principle that would align the UK as a whole to the EU’s agri-food standards.

The radical proposal to align sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) standards was floated last week by North Down MP Stephen Farry and would have the aim of minimising trade friction between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Farry wrote to both the UK Government and EU Commission to suggest a joint veterinary agreement.

Farry said an agreement “would be in the interests of NI, and UK as a whole”. “Creativity and pragmatism [are] required,” he added.

UFU president Victor Chestnutt said: “Since the Brexit referendum result, the UFU has been lobbying to achieve the best possible outcome for NI farmers.

“Our aim has always been focused on ensuring free and frictionless trade could continue east/west and north/south.

Aligning the UK’s agri-food standards with the EU’s would straighten out a lot of the trade issues that we have been burdened with since the beginning of the year.

“It would do away with a large percentage of the physical and documentary checks that are currently required, helping to ensure agri-food products and livestock can continue moving, flowing as freely as possible from GB to NI without extra complications and costs.”

Impact on livestock trade

Chestnutt explained such a move would go a long way to easing the situation for pedigree breeders.

“We have many examples already – such as livestock identification changes and machinery soil contaminant certification – where additional restrictive measures are now required,” he said.

“One particular, and very visible, effect is the shop window for NI pedigree breeders being blocked, as animals cannot be taken to GB to be shown.

“While animals can still be sold in GB, the regulations still limit the farmer. If he or she travels to GB to sell an animal but the animal is not sold, it has a six-month residency to complete in GB before it can be brought back into NI.

It’s not a practical situation by any means and the long-term damage will not only affect the pedigree sector, but it will eventually impact the availability and quality of the gene pool of NI livestock.

“Aligning the entire UK with the EU in the area of SPS standards would help improve what has become an absolute trading nightmare for many of our farmers.”