Princess Anne has said Brexit might afford some farmers “an opportunity” as she discussed challenges facing British landowners.
Anne, 70, joined the Oxford Farming Conference’s (OFC) podcast over Christmas ahead of the organisation’s annual event this month, and talked about the impact of the pandemic.
The Princess Royal is honorary president of the OFC, and has her own farm at Gatcombe Estate in Gloucestershire.
Asked about the challenges facing farmers in the year ahead, she told podcast host Sarah Mukherjee: “Some are much better prepared than others.
“I have to say there are two major issues – Brexit, and how people cope with that, if anybody has any idea how it’s going to impact them.
“For some it will be an opportunity.
“And for the others it’s been the impact of the pandemic, which has been a mixed experience but you only have to look at the blockages at the ports to know we need to be more resilient in some of these areas.
“I hope that’s something that not just the retail but the customers will understand is a really important aspect of our countryside.
“It’s not because someone is old-fashioned and wants to grow something.
“There is real purpose here and will end up in your shopping bag, possibly.
“I hope that’s raised the importance of some issues which you don’t see as being agricultural.”
She said land use was an important topic, including public use, and said political decisions impacted that every time they were made.
She added: “Everything that’s going on at the moment is mixed up in that, the public access, never mind whether we should be producing more in certain areas and whether we can take an opportunity from what is going on at the moment to be more proactive in markets, both internally and externally.”
The impact of Brexit is of significant concern to business.
While the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) expressed relief after a trade deal was struck last month, there have been warnings over the level of disruption to exporting goods to the continent.
Its president Minette Batters said: “The EU is our largest trading partner and we have been clear throughout negotiations that maintaining tariff-free access to the EU market is absolutely crucial for our food and farming industry, not only for farmers’ businesses and livelihoods, but for our ability to continue to provide a secure supply of quality, home-grown food for the nation.
“The ability to continue trading tariff-free has alleviated a lot of pressure for those farmers that rely heavily on the EU export market, such as our sheep farmers, as well as farmers across British agriculture who produce the safe, traceable and affordable food that underpins more than £14bn worth of export sales each year to the EU.
“It does remain the case though that our relationship with the EU has fundamentally changed and this will inevitably lead to disruption.
“While many traders seem to be holding off exporting agri-food goods to prevent delays at the border while we find our feet with the new system, volumes will pick up again soon and exporters will have to deal with additional checks, paperwork and requirements, all of which will add costs and complexity.
“It is therefore vital that government does all it can to clearly communicate the new rules and to prioritise exports of our high quality, perishable agricultural products so we don’t face a situation where products are left languishing in queues at the border.”
But there are concerns that some farmers will lose out. Fergus Ewing, Scotland’s cabinet secretary for the rural economy said Scottish farmers could lose as much as £170m over the next four years because they can no longer claim EU subsidies.
Similar concerns have been raised by Welsh politicians. Farming is a devolved issue but the EU subsidies were dealt with on a national level, and the replacement for them will be handled by Westminster too.
George Eustice, the environment secretary, has said the British government will consider allowing gene editing, which is highly restricted by the EU.
Eustice has said the process is under review in the EU, so the situation could change, but some farmers have been left worried allowing gene editing would impact exports to the bloc.
Anne has previously appeared to clash with her brother Prince Charles over their views on farming, and has questioned the impact of climate change.
Charles, 72, was an early pioneer of organic farming, but Anne has been vocal about the positive work genetic modification has brought.
She told Women’s Weekly Australia: “It has been an enormous advantage in many parts of the world to use GM wisely for very specific environments. It makes it much more likely to be able to grow what you need.
“I have to remind people that rapeseed oil was only made non-toxic to humans by the Canadians after the Second World War by genetically modifying the plant. It's [ironically] quite popular with all those people who don't like GM.”
She said the conversations between she and her brother, who is soon to give up his lease on Home Farm in nearby Highgrove House, are “short”.
Anne joined the OFC virtually this year, as the whole event went online. She also joined a private Zoom call with some of the scholars to hear about the programme.
Watch: Royal children through the years