Fasten your seatbelts, we’re heading for Brexit. Without doubt it’s going to be a bumpy road, especially for farmers. Despite the fact that the National Farmers Union argued publicly that farmers would be better off staying in the EU the majority of UK farmers, like the wider population, voted to leave the EU.
They did so because they are ‘tired of being told what to do by Brussels’ e.g. the three crop rule, pesticide/weed killer regulations, greening instructions, lots of paper work, and other complaints. They bought the argument, advanced by the farming minister George Eustice (who remains in the same role in May’s government) that farmers would continue to receive subsidies at a comparable level, but from the UK government rather than Brussels. Farmers also felt leaving will be a spur to innovation resulting from a ‘bonfire of rules’.
Quite how it does all pan out in three or four years time is anyone’s guess. Due to the removal of Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) subsidies UK farmers can be expected to be 17-48% worse off, but it will depend on how much UK government decides to subsidise farming by.
Seven of the UK’s top 10 export markets are in the EU with the Republic of Ireland, France and the Netherlands being the top three. Can we still export to these countries if we decide to leave the Single Market as well as leaving the EU?
Either way we will have to keep EU food standards – i.e. rules – if we want to sell into the EU, so we will need to be like Norway. We will be following the EU rules but not making the EU rules.
Yes, we can now ditch EU rules on plant protection products like glyphosate, but if we now use such products, when the EU doesn’t, will we be able to export our produce to the EU?
What happens to key pieces of environment legislation such as the Birds and Habitats Directive? Many farmers would want them to go, but that will result in an almighty clash between the environmental groups and the farming sector, pitting the urban against the rural.
What happens to farm produce that currently has protected status, known technically as Geographical Indicators i.e. Cumberland Sausage? The UK currently has the third largest number of such products, how do we keep this protection and the ensuing level of sales they help drive?
Many parts of the farming sector e.g. soft fruit, are heavily dependent on migrant labour, with the wider food and beverage manufacture having a workforce that is 30% migrant. How will they function if migration stops?
How will the big agriculture picture change? Will agriculture become more intensified? More laissez-faire? More like the Netherlands, with animals inside all year round? What will the British public, predominately urban based, think of this?
One of the more interesting developments will be that the setting of agriculture policy will become more visible to UK politicians, the public and the media. Instead of happening in Brussels, with little media coverage, it will happen more in London with interesting implications, particularly regarding budgetary spending. As a consequence UK politicians will be lobbied by the public on agricultural and food issues in a way they previously were not.
There could be a silver lining to all this: the UK will have the opportunity to ’experiment’ more, to do their own thing. The UK will be able to see just what kind of farming is possible with reduced levels of subsidy, as we move into a new chapter of farming in the UK. What is likely is that the amount of marginal agricultural land will increase in line with the decline in subsidies. Large tracks of the uplands will become farmless, opening up opportunities for change of use e.g. to forestry, which could be incredibly effective in the battle against climate change.
A bonfire of rules and regulations is unlikely, and in due course there will be changes, but any subsidy from Westminster will still have rules attached and is unlikely to ever equal the levels of the current CAP payments. What we need is a new food and farming plan for the UK—let the debate begin.