A FLOOD of cheap imports after Britain leaves the EU threatens to cripple Scottish farming, devastate rural communities and undermine the UK’s ability to produce enough food to sustain its population, sector leaders fear.

As the UK environment secretary Michael Gove moves to reassure Scotland's food sector with claims Brexit offers an "historic" chance to reshape agricultural policy for farmers and consumers, experts warn new international trade agreements will see domestic markets swamped with produce not prepared to current British standards.

HeraldScotland:

Moving to World Trade Organisation (WTO) arrangements, it has been claimed, could also fatally undermine a sector which supports 75,000 business and 360,000 jobs in Scotland.

The UK’s biggest farming body has warned Westminster it needs to recognise the threat of “inappropriate trading arrangements on food security issues” and, with cheaper imports and new export tariffs threatening the viability of domestic producers, had to urgently address declining self-sufficiency.

Read more: Farmers have the French to thank for subsidies: But who will back them post-Brexit?

Sector leaders have also said that while consumers could benefit from cheaper cuts of meat, food standards would be export raising concerns about the quality of imported produce.

And with changes to farming subsidies an inevitable knock-on from Brexit, there are warnings that, on top of new trading regimes, the entire fabric of rural life in Scotland is being jeopardised.

HeraldScotland:

Stuart Ashworth, head of economic services with Quality Meat Scotland, which promotes and markets the sector, said: "The potential to move to free trade opens up the prospect of importing meat from countries which can produce much cheaper than we can.

"A potential consequence would be a downward spiral on the margins of those businesses handling Scottish cattle and processing the meat they produce, threatening the profitability of the supply chain and in turn leading to the risk of businesses folding, employment being lost and that's a real concern."

Read more: Farmers have the French to thank for subsidies: But who will back them post-Brexit?

With post-Brexit international trade relationships set to determining both agriculture’s access to markets and the regulatory regimes it will have to work, a WTO arrangement is viewed by many as the most damaging scenario for the profitability and long term viability of British and Scottish agriculture.

HeraldScotland:

Already those involved in the UK's sheepmeat sector, largely concentrated in Scotland and Wales, fear tariffs of up to 60 per cent to trade with key markets like former EU partners France will kill it off.

But with beef making up the bulk of Scotland's £2.4bn red meat industry, worries about the damage of cheaper imports to the UK are exacerbated by longer term anxieties over Britain's capacity to generate enough produce for its population.

The National Farmers' Union Scotland has warned that any post-Brexit trade deal "must actively seek to prevent any form of ‘cheap food policy’, as importing more food would effectively export food production and food manufacturing and all the associated employment".

In a briefing to its members, it states: "As well as the economic cost, sucking in food imports would also export environmental, animal welfare and food standards responsibilities to others.

"It will be vital that legislative standards adhered to by UK producers are fully met by all agricultural and food imports, to address concerns that products from elsewhere produced to lower standards could undermine domestic production."

Read more: Farmers have the French to thank for subsidies: But who will back them post-Brexit?

Mr Ashworth added: "The threat comes from the situation where we become a free-trade nation and the non-European producers could get open access to the UK.

"If that happens then it could open to the door to the lowest price producers, most obviously Brazil. If we're bringing in lower price products then the whole market comes under pressure and wholesale prices could fall significantly.

"I can quite easily see how for an urban population Brexit might mean cheaper food. But what might sit less easily are issues around food safety, traceability and reliability of supply."

HeraldScotland:

Steven Thomson is agricultural economist at the Scottish Rural College University. He is sceptical about the short-term impacts of new trade deals on the viability of domestic producers but believes post-Brexit food security concerns are realistic.

He said: "If we're just going to where the cheapest food is then I'd remind people of what happened with the Icelandic volcano when we were a day away from no fruit and veg. Trading with the EU everything is through freight. This is a massive subject area."

Read more: Farmers have the French to thank for subsidies: But who will back them post-Brexit?

Addressing a meeting in Holyrood organised by the NFU, Mr Gove said while EU membership had helped improve environmental standards and encouraged rural diversification, it had had a harmful impact in other areas and the UK's exit from the common agricultural policy meant the UK would no longer be "dictated to" by Brussels.

He said he would to listen to and learn from the industry as the Brexit process unfolded and be their "energetic champion" in government.

Mr Gove also claimed that while farmers were excellent custodians of the environment, the industry had to be financially viable because people were "running businesses not just providing scenery".