A new book, edited by UK agricultural journalist Caroline Stocks looks into the potential impact on farming by examining the issue from multiple perspectives. Each chapter is either an interview Stocks did or an edited essay from various industry leaders, experts and farmers.
“The all-important question mark in the title, Farmageddon? – Brexit and British Agriculture, was to suggest the outcome for farming really is on a knife-edge, depending on how the UK agrees to leave the EU,” Stocks said.
“The idea was to speak to people from different viewpoints to see if I could cut through all of the emotionally-charged rhetoric to find out what the future really could be.”
With just over 50% of the British electorate having voted for Brexit industry polls show farmer sentiment is pretty similar. Those who voted to leave the EU argue they want to take back control of legislation. UK farmers’ relationship with the EU is a complicated one. Many of the UK’s 149,000 farm businesses rely on EU subsidies that amount to around £3 billion a year to keep their business afloat.
Most farming legislation, through the Common Agriculture Policy, is created in Brussels and then is fed back down to member states through national governments. National governments are allowed to interpret that regulation to make it fit their farming industries.
“Creating a one-size-fits all law for 27 very different countries is obviously difficult and the UK is renowned for gold-plating every bit of legislation that has come from Europe. While this has always been the UK governments’ fault, politicians deftly pass blame back to Europe, hence farmers aren’t that fond of Europe.”
Stocks said British farmers hope the rules around pesticide use and genetic modification technologies will become less strict once they quit the EU. Looking at Brexit from a positive viewpoint there will also be opportunities through trade with other countries.
“This is obviously going to be dependent on tariffs and any trade deals the UK is able to secure. At present the proposed tariffs don’t look great for UK farmers hoping to export. In the book, out of eight chapters there are only two who think it’s going to be a good thing. One is a minister who is responsible for creating the replacement domestic farm policy and the other is a farmer who is viewing that there could be opportunities to be picked from the rubble of whatever is left after we’ve gone.”
Many farmers hope for a loosening of rules but Stocks suspects they will be waiting a long time.
“If we want to keep trading with the EU in any capacity we are going to have to continue abiding by their rules around things like animal welfare, environmental regulations etc to ensure our produce continues to meet their high standards.
“I can’t imagine many farmers would want to reduce regulations around things like welfare either. Some hoped that Brexit would pave the way for GM to be used in this country but it looks unlikely, at least for now.”
With Brexit being a large and complex beast and changing every day the ins and out of its effects on any industry can be hard to comprehend.
One of the biggest issues for farmers is subsidies. Depending on the sector, particularly beef and sheep, so much of UK agriculture is dependent on subsidies to make a profit. The UK government has agreed to match the CAP subsidy until 2022 or until the next election, whichever comes first.
“However, there were huge arguments with the Treasury when this was agreed and given the cash-strapped health service in the UK it’s widely felt that as soon as they can reduce subsidies, they will.
“The biggest and immediate change with subsidies is that payments will no longer be based on farm sizes but on a farm’s ability to provide environmental services. Public money for public good is the mantra of the farming department. This means that while there’ll be money available for farmers they’ll have to do things like flood prevention work, planting trees and so on to be eligible for payments.”
Trade is another impact point with some of the UK sectors, in particular lamb, being entirely built on the export market. If those markets are lost many sheep producers are predicted to go out of business within months. A recent industry report by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board said, in a worst-case scenario, ie a no-deal Brexit, where they don’t leave with a trade agreement, farm profits will fall from £38,000 to £15,000.
Part of the domestic agricultural policy includes a measure to help older farmers retire with dignity so more young farmers can get into the industry, an industry that will likely be starkly different to the one their parents operated in.
“The idea is older farmers will be offered a lump sum, I think its three years’ worth of their subsidy payment upfront to step down from their business. A lot of younger farmers want to farm without subsidies anyway because they distort the markets so the idea is everyone will be happy in that situation.
“I think that innovative and entrepreneurial farmers, whatever their age, will have plenty of opportunities in the future. The challenge is riding out the short-term challenges created by Brexit and being fast enough to adapt what you’re doing to respond to new conditions.”
As well as subsidies and a ready-made market for food exports, thousands of migrant staff, largely from Eastern Europe, help keep farms running day to day. With the UK stopping the free movement of people from Europe migrant labour will become an issue.
“Lots of dairy farmers have relied on migrant staff, particularly from Poland, in recent years and since the referendum they have struggled to find good staff as so many Polish have left the UK.”
Tightening of regulations around slurry storage and greenhouse gas emissions are likely as the UK looks to tighten environmental laws.
Stocks said the whopping issue in the Brexit debate is the problem with Ireland and Northern Ireland.
“It’s a huge problem from a dairy perspective as there are so many dairy farmers in Ireland who regularly trade between the Irish border and send milk to be processes in different parts of two countries.
“If Ireland leaves the customs union and Northern Ireland doesn’t it makes moving anything over the border a complete nightmare, especially food and agricultural produce.
“At the moment the UK Prime Minister (Boris Johnson) reckons he has come up with a solution by moving the border into the sea but in practice no one knows how it will work.”
Britain and the world are waiting for an outcome but no one has any idea which way it will swing.
“Back in May, when we were first due to leave, people were deciding whether to hold off planting crops or buying cattle to see what happened but repeated delays mean most people have just got on with things
“I know some dairy farmers who have decided to reduce their herd sizes as they’re not confident that the milk price is going to hold but I think they’re the minority rather than the norm.”