The Northern Ireland Protocol – SPS issues faced by UK farmers

The implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) and specifically the measures related to the agri-food sector has generated significant interest and concern at the political level. In addition to the well documented concerns that relate to the supply of food to retail outlets in Northern Ireland from GB, a number of other issues are affecting the way in which UK farmers move goods and trade between themselves and with customers across the UK. We believe that every step should be taken to protect a well-functioning single market for food, agricultural commodities, part/processed agricultural products, live animals and breeding material, and plant and plant products throughout the UK, whilst also acknowledging the need to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

The announcement by the UK Government on the 4th March relating to operational guidance on the movement of plants, plant material and used agricultural machinery to NI has provided a number of pragmatic operational measures to target specific problems, but we understand that they are temporary and therefore do not detract from the need for long term, reciprocal solutions to wider GB-NI trade. We therefore welcome the UK Government’s recently published Command Paper “Northern Ireland Protocol: The way forward”
The UK Farming Union’s support a model for agri food movements that would remove the need for Export Health Certificates, Phyto Sanitary certificates and checks for individual items that are only ever intended to be consumed in Northern Ireland. We recognise that certain exclusions may be necessary, specifically in relation to live animals to address potential biosecurity risks. We agree that the biosecurity of the island of Ireland must be upheld, and believe that there are ways in which this can be managed without prohibitions, or unworkable requirements and burdens on traders and farmers in Northern Ireland.
We have identified a number of concerns with the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. These are set out below, alongside proposed pragmatic steps to smoothing this trade. These proposals are suggested solutions, rather than over-prescriptive requirements, in line with the ambition set out by both the European Commission and the UK Government to seek possible compromises in line with the broad contours of the Protocol. We call on all parties involved in the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol to find pragmatic solutions to address these concerns and the UK Farming Unions stand ready to engage actively in this process.

Horticulture, potato and arable sector impacts
Seven days’ notice for exports of horticulture products
  • The GB horticulture, and more specifically the vegetable sector, has encountered issues exporting to Northern Ireland. At present growers are required to give seven days’ notice of intention to export in order to facilitate the required inspections from the GB authorities to issue a Phytosanitary Certificate, making it impossible to meet short notice requests from buyers. Inspections and the requirements to complete additional paperwork are also adding cost. This issue has been exacerbated by a shortage and the inexperience of government officials who can undertake inspections. Whilst we welcome efforts to increase recruitment in order to ease this issue, additional efforts should be prioritised in order to bring that seven day notice period down to reflect the nature of the UK’s internal market trade.
  • Goods moving under the STAMNI scheme are exempt from this requirement currently, while for fresh produce and cut flowers, growers can also secure authorisation under the Plant Health Export Audited Trader Scheme (PHEATS) to issue their own Phytosanitary Certificates. The PHEATS scheme is very welcome, but for growers who are unable to register with PHEATS or are currently moving plants and plant products under the STAMNI scheme, long term solutions are needed.
  • One possible solution, in line with the possible easements proposed under the government’s Command Paper, could be implementing a system based on the Plant Passport system for GB to NI movements. The Plant Passport system is used to ensure all internal EU movements of plants and plant products are biosecure and traceable; an equivalent system is used in GB called the UK Plant Passport system. Prior to 31 December 2020 the Plant Passport system covered movements between the EU and UK. Building on such a system would reduce the burden of these movements on both GB and NI businesses, as well as the border infrastructure. The Plant Passport system is designed to ensure traceability so that should a plant health issue be identified it can easily be traced back through all those plant movements. Additional safeguards could be built on to ensure plants remain in the UK’s territory, for instance limiting to the UK Plant Passport system or specific notices requiring NI use. As all plants must moved with a Plant Passport attached it could be easily identified if the plant was not intended for use outside of NI, and further safeguards could be built into the Plant Passport retention system to protect this change.
Seed potatoes
  • Growers across GB have historically supplied seed potatoes to growers in Northern Ireland and to buyers in several EU Member States, including Ireland. The prohibition of GB seed potatoes imports into the EU and Northern Ireland represents a lost market for those growers and a potential shortage of seed for ware potato growers in NI and elsewhere. The UK Farming Unions welcomed the rapid action of Defra in submitting an application for equivalence to the European Commission in the first week of January. However, it is hugely disappointing that despite strong support from several EU countries, the Commission has rejected the application in the absence of a UK undertaking to dynamically align standards. The UK Farming Unions believe that every effort must be made to secure access to the EU and Northern Irish markets as a matter of priority, and welcome the ongoing political attention this is being given. In the absence of market access, all UK farmers affected by the lack of equivalence granting access to the EU and NI market should be supported by UK government measures.
  • The political difficulties around reaching an agreement on seed potato trade are well known – however, it may be possible to reach an agreement specifically for GB to NI trade which balances the need to uphold biosecurity on the island of Ireland, and facilitates the smooth trade of seed potatoes, supporting growers on both sides of the Irish sea. For example, allowing seed potatoes to move with full biosecurity controls (including phytosanitary certificates) would ensure that any seed moved from GB meets plant health requirements. There could also be scope to utilising schemes such as the ‘safe haven’ scheme to ensure the seed is safe to plant. These systems would also ensure traceability is maintained, and alongside provisions to ensure the seed is planted in NI.
Prohibited high risk plants, Live plants with soil attached and other controlled forms of growing media.
  • Movement of certain tree species, considered “high-risk” including native species such as the English oak, birch and beech is currently prohibited between GB and NI - pending a risk assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The risk assessment process is underway, but in the meantime it is now no longer possible to move those species to Northern Ireland. This is affecting tree planting under environmental schemes in Northern Ireland which encourage the establishment of native tree species.
  • Plants grown directly in soil must be root washed. This is inefficient, costly and risks damage to the plants from multiple handlings, so businesses will no longer be able to supply NI customers. Several businesses have stated that this could represent losses ranging from £50,000 to £500,000, depending on the size of the business.
  • There is currently a temporary derogation allowing plants with soil/growing media attached to move from GB to NI – the timescales for this declaration are unconfirmed. Long term solutions must be found to ensure that GB growers can continue to supply NI businesses and consumers. Affected plants could include plants producing an edible crop, ornamental plants for further production or direct sale to the consumer, or turf (e.g. for sports pitches).
  • Similarly, soil and growing media containing organic material is prohibited for movement from GB to NI, apart from 100% coir/peat. This not only reduces sources of a vital input for NI businesses, but also could lead to increased use of peat in horticultural production, as a time when everyone is seeking more sustainable solutions. This restriction has already been impacting the mushroom sector in NI, which relies on GB supplies of chicken litter-based growing media to provide the growing base for mushrooms.
  • It is recognised that a complete return to the plant passporting system is unlikely to be acceptable in the case of otherwise prohibited growing media, but as proposed for seed potatoes, the use of Phytosanitary Certificates and associated inspections could be used to ensure that movements of such goods do not pose a biosecurity risk to the island of Ireland. This approach is being used by the UK for EU imports of plants with soil attached, demonstrating that this system does provide the necessary levels of assurance, particularly considering the history of these plant movements. Furthermore, this system, potentially with adaptations, could be adapted to ensure plants do not move on further through tie in with the plant passporting system once in NI.
Availability of certified seed
  • We are aware of issues arising from farmers in Northern Ireland unable to secure timely supplies of certified seed. Complexities should be minimised and guidance well publicised to ensure that farmers are not left with vital materials in short planting windows.

Arable products classed as At-Risk Goods
  • Businesses in the arable supply chain have reported difficulties sending GB grown grain to NI for further processing (e.g. milling or animal feed), as this would fall under the at-risk category, and so would require significant customs requirements and paperwork. This could lead businesses to move away from processing in NI, or using GB grain to supply the market, as well as risking a shortfall of finished products such as flour or animal feed in NI. It is already being reported that there has been a significant increase in use of Irish flour in the baking sector.
  • The UK Government must find long term solutions to manage the issue of at-risk goods, as the current waiver scheme is insufficient for the volumes being moved due to state aid limitations, or because businesses are involved in primary agricultural production. Furthermore, the industry is still waiting for further information on claiming duty back.
Livestock sector impacts

We take note of published EU non-papers and recent discussions in the EU’s Standing Committee for Food Safety on issues relating to the livestock sector. Details of negotiated outcomes and necessary industry guidance are not yet published, so we are unable to assess whether long term solutions to the following issues have been found. We continue to highlight the difficulties faced by livestock producers in both GB and NI faced with third country rules on internal UK movements.
Movement of live farm animals (cattle and sheep):

  • The Protocol treats GB animals imported into NI as imports from third countries and hence, EU SPS rules apply. We respect that the island of Ireland is one single epidemiological area and assure both sides that NI farmers are not looking to bring in any livestock from mainland GB that is of a lesser standard. It would not be in the interests of NI farmers to bring in any animals which pose a risk to biosecurity.
  • However, the EU rules as set out in the Protocol means that the export of live farm animals (cattle and sheep) from GB to NI very difficult and costly exercise, which will curtail trade bar a few high value exceptions. This is not a workable situation. The long-term damage will not only affect the pedigree sector but eventually it will affect the availability and quality of the genetics of NI livestock.
  • The EU third country rules also apply to animals being moved for show and sale. Effectively the shop window for NI pedigree breeders has been blocked, as animals cannot be taken to mainland GB to be shown. Animals can be sold at sales however that NI farmer is limited. If an animal is taken to mainland GB to be sold and is not, that animal has to complete a 6-month residency in GB and has to be re tagged to be brought back into NI.
  • If the EU deems that an animal that moves from GB to NI is not eligible to go into the EU market then that animal must stay within the UK internal market, which obviously includes NI. The traceability systems in place for livestock in the UK make it a legal requirement for an animal’s movements to be tracked. This would mean it would be entirely possible to know if an animal from GB stays in NI or if it moved on (at any point of its life) to ROI.
    Scrapie requirements for exports of breeding sheep from GB to NI:
    In addition to the current requirement for a maeda visna (MV) test at 12 months, a scrapie attestation is required for the EHC for movement of sheep GB to NI. This is an EU requirement for importation of sheep from third countries.
  • There are two options to comply with this:-
  1. In the long term, GB flocks wishing to export to sheep to NI will need to be part of the Scrapie Monitoring Scheme – this takes 3 years to get below the critical risk level and 7 years to get to negligible risk.
  2. Sheep can have a genotype test to see if they are susceptible to Scrapie. The cost of this is now covered under the Movement Assistance Scheme which we welcome, but many of the hill breeds (which make up a substantial proportion of the current trade) will likely fail the test making this an unsustainable solution for the longer term.
  • On average around 9,000 breeding sheep are imported into NI from GB per annum and intel from UFU, suggests that there have been higher numbers bought in the autumn of 2020 which means 2021 trade could be up.
  • The sheep could not be brought into NI ahead of the 1st Jan deadline, as the sheep need to be 1 year old to be able to travel. Normally, NI farmers buy ewe lambs in the autumn and pay keep to the GB farmer until they are old enough to travel, usually the following year.
  • The UK should continue to seek a derogation for breeding stock from this requirement. In the longer term, Defra should support GB flocks likely to export to NI to become part of the scrapie monitoring scheme.
Cross Sector Issues

Mixed loads and groupage
  • Businesses in GB and farmers in NI are reporting issues and loss of income with the movement of goods such as small consignments of animal feeds, PPP, colostrum, fertilisers and other inputs to farm businesses. Much of this trade would have been carried out in the form of a “mixed pallet” which grouped various items together in the same consignment and then transported over to NI in trucks that “grouped” consignments together, arriving potentially at multiple destinations. Given the complexity associated with mixed pallets and groupage, much of this trade has stopped leaving NI farmers without the option of sourcing goods from the rest of the UK.


Veterinary medicines

• It is vital that farmers in Northern Ireland continue to have access to a wide array of veterinary medicines. It must be possible for all approved products marketed in the UK, to be available on the NI market.

Machinery parts and field machinery
  • Farmers in both GB and NI are experiencing issues moving 2nd hand machinery (including machines for hire) between GB and NI. This is because all machines must be free of soil and other potential contaminants for entry into NI. While there is a temporary easement that allows for movements of washed machinery without a Phytosanitary Certificate, a longer term solution must be found.
  • Farmers are reporting delays for machinery parts delivered via delivery services from the EU of up to 14 days presently. This may increase further as demand for machinery parts increases as times go on and field operations commence.