As we emerge, cavorting in the sunshine, from beneath the cover of Covid, long-term positivity post-Brexit remains in short supply. Yes, pent-up economic demand may mean that hospitality and tourism will bounce back, as might the housing market. On the down side, according to IHS Markit, manufacturing growth has slowed in the post-Covid world.
So how will British agriculture fare in this brave new world? Passing over any present ‘Sausage Wars’, we should be concerned about agriculture. This is not just because it is self-evidently essential, but it is central to the wellbeing of our rural areas, both socially and environmentally. Overall, farmers may have voted close to the national 52-48% split in favour of Brexit. However the detail of farmers’ voting patterns was complicated as a recent study in The Journal of Rural Studies found. It concluded:
“The sense that leaving the EU would make agricultural policy less restrictive and the farmers’ need to make farming more profitable, allow for reinvestment and to have more power in markets and have more confidence in their decision making, were all key drivers of their voting preference, but will this happen in practice?”
Deeper scrutiny would seem to reveal that small farmers (mostly family farms) tended towards ‘Remain’, while the wealthier (generally arable) farmers tended towards ‘Leave’. Interestingly a majority of female farmers chose ‘Remain’. The myth that all farmers voted for Brexit is challenged by Emma Monk in our sister publication, West Country Bylines. This is in line with anecdotal evidence offered to me here in the south-west of England there would now be a tendency in voting preference towards Leave.
The National Farmers’ Union leader Minette Batters finds herself fighting a battle that many would regard as unnecessary had the Referendum gone the other way. To quote her:
“Things could go massively wrong, and it could decimate the industry.”
Ouch! Call me old fashioned, but one imagines the NFU President can pass an informed judgement. This is the here and now, not 2016, and we can now see with certainty that we face three major threats to our countryside, rural communities and domestic food production. These are:
- The Australia Deal
- Agri-environmental Schemes
- Labour Shortage
The Australia deal
Many British farmers are very worried about the Australian Deal. As Brexit supporter tend to look backwards towards empire, attention turns to the old Commonwealth. Agricultural development of the colonies in the nineteenth century created massive problems for the UK’s domestic agricultural economy. Then in the late twentieth century the rural economies of both Australia and New Zealand suffered with the UK’s accession to the European Union, so they turned towards trading with nearby Asian countries. Now that the Chinese market in particular is less accessible they look to UK on the other side of the world. I have written before on the cost, both financial and environmental, of long-distance shipping. These costs are much lower importing from our EU neighbours.
Also there are concerns that imports from Australia may contain hormone growth promoters, pesticides, and feed additives that are banned in the UK. NFU is quite reasonably concerned that economies of scale mean that (for example) beef is produced at a lower cost, undercutting our farmers. Protestations from the other side include cries for better labelling, and there are sustainable farming enterprises in Australia, but so there are across Europe. The EU-driven, ‘Farm to Fork’ food chain policy was there to protect consumers.
‘Agri-environmental schemes’ has been promoted by the EU to encourage sustainable farming and the production of ‘environmental goods’. UK needs similar protection now we have left the EU. Price support for produce has moved towards protection of habitats, water, soils, endangered species, historic habitats and more. Michael Gove and friends have been pushing the Agriculture Bill designed to pay farmers directly during the Transition Period for managing land or water in a way that maintains, restores or enhances cultural and natural heritage; mitigates or adapts to climate change; prevents, reduces or protects from environmental hazards; while protecting or improving the health or welfare of livestock and likewise plant life.
In context, the media buzzes with ideas such as restoration of wetlands, controls on agri-chemical use, woodland planting, and even enacting the concept of ‘re-wilding’ while apparently maintaining EU regulations. However the UK on its own has a variable track record in the protection of soils, water and habitats without the benefit of collective international policy making. Gove’s bill has little new to say because we were doing all those things already, with an impressive scientific knowledge-base. He sports the Emperor’s new clothes, but I prefer not to think what that might look like!
There is now a massive labour shortage in agriculture and horticulture in UK. Brexit was supposed to prevent all that immigration from ghastly foreign workers, but who is there now to do the work? We knew back in 2016 that the proposed ‘solutions’ of mechanisation in agriculture and horticulture and of unemployed Brits leaping out of bed to pick lettuce or peas, were in fact weasel words. And we now find there is a crisis for recruitment not only for pickers but also for experienced drivers and other skilled technicians as well. As Kent County Council squares up to Priti Patel about provision for asylum seekers and their children, she would do well to contemplate immigration policy in the wake of Brexit. Certain immigrants are needed if our produce is to be harvested, from which we would all benefit.
So Brexit has left British farming with major problems. And the consequences will be felt by us all, whether we’re farm workers, consumers or lovers of our great countryside.
What a mess.