18 October 2018

Post BREXIT World

Where exactly do Food and Farming feature in the Government’s strategy for industry post-Brexit? How much are they valued by Government?  Questions necessitating a comprehensively considered and structured response – but let us first get a perspective on recent history and the status quo.

For more than 40 years the UK has been a member of the EU’s single market – one of the most sophisticated, detailed and complex trading systems in the world.  Replacement with our own set of regulations is a huge task.  Getting it right will embrace benefits for UK business. Getting it wrong will be a disaster that will put British business back decades. 

The EU via CAP has provided the framework for UK farming since the early 1970s.  Europe has been the most important destination for our farming-related exports (around 72%) as well as being the most important source of farming-related imports.

Throughout EU membership the UK’s farming and food producers have suffered from three major problems.                                                                                      

Firstly: following recovery from the Second World War farming and food have generally been in a lowly position on the agenda of UK governments. Today respect for food has been lost because, for decades, whatever we want is available whenever we want it.

Secondly: lack of public understanding of what the farming industries involve and the diverse and crucially important benefits they deliver.                                                                                    

Thirdly: the Common Agricultural Policy – the EU’s single largest pay out – has been remarkably inefficient. Quotas were imposed to offset wine-lakes, butter-mountains and milk over-production.  Payments were made to set-aside land in order to reduce overproduction and the policy then reversed.  Payments made for ripping out hedges to enlarge fields resulted in soil erosion and serious impact on wildlife; the policy was reversed and payments made for planting new hedges. The size and shape of fruit and vegetables were standardised and, although subsequently amended, the policy continues to influence consumer choice and so-called ‘ugly vegetables’ are rejected as substandard.

Further: farmers constantly have a finger pointed at them relating to environmental issues including loss of biodiversity and problems associated with water and air pollution. At the same time there is relatively little media coverage of the many, many green initiatives implemented by our farmers. 

 

 

Further: farmers constantly have a finger pointed at them relating to environmental issues including loss of biodiversity and problems associated with water and air pollution. At the same time there is relatively little media coverage of the many, many green initiatives implemented by our farmers. 

Numerous stories concerning poor management of farm livestock regularly hit the headlines and there is growing ethical concern about the quality of life of farm animals reared intensively – meanwhile the media chooses to ignore the fact that the UK’s animal husbandry standards are amongst the best in the world.

The UK is green, pleasant and very beautiful.  Geology aside, the landscape benefits from diverse methods of farming practised in Britain. How often is this acknowledged and appreciated?

Overall the UK has a deficit in its trade in agricultural and food products of about £20.5bn with exports at £18bn and imports at £38.5bn (2015). The gap has been widening over the last ten years.

Despite Brexit, we shall remain part of a globalised economy – thus climate change-related impact on food production in one country can impact on countries thousands of miles away potentially causing shortages and price hikes – something that must be factored into national and regional policy if the UK is to ensure food security.

Against this background price wars continue and there is constant demand to pare prices even further. 

Commonly held views: farmers are whingers…scroungers…moaners…don’t make any money…and never have holidays.  Farmers are loaded and live off the fat of the land.  Farmers are all big landowners who don’t value their assets and don’t contribute enough to taxes.

Surely when we go it alone we can do better?  Much better? Brexit affords enormous opportunities – we mustn’t waste them.  It also poses big, big challenges and a fair number of obstacles.

We cannot live without food.  Post-Brexit we cannot be certain we shall be able to maintain food imports at the current rate. Yet – yet – the Government’s strategy is heavily biased in favour of ‘the environment’.

The CAP policy may involve some fundamental flaws but it does make clear the supreme importance of food production.

Trade talks – where outline discussions have taken place with ‘the rest of the world’- are in very early stages and as yet it is impossible to predict outcomes.  At the same time we are waiting for genuine signs of progress re the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Account also needs to be taken of the ways in which implementation of support for agriculture and fishing is currently devolved for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Securing the right (favourable) customs arrangements between the EU Single Market and the UK market must be a priority.   

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The government promises ‘a brighter future for farming and our countryside’.

Titled-‘Health and Harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment’, Defra organised 17 consultation events across country.

Hosted at East Malling by Defra and Action for Communities in Rural Kent, the Kent consultation was primarily supported by farmers and individuals representing the environment sector.   

Countrywide the events were attended by 1,250 representatives of the UK’s food, farming and environment sectors and Defra received in excess of 44,000 responses from farmers across the country.  A government report will be published once the results have been analysed.