The implications of Brexit on farming in the UK

Posted On: 
13th April 2017

In the second of a series of articles analysing the impact of Brexit on the Natural Environment, Dods Monitoring’s Environmental Consultant Ben Rayner explores the future for farming in a post-CAP world. 

Have Remain's apocryphal predictions come true, or has 'project fear' fallen flat on their forecasts of Brexit's impact on UK agriculture?
PA Images

Throughout the referendum campaign there was much talk of the consequences leaving the European Union would have on British farming.  People gave doomsday predictions that Brexit would be the end of days for UK agriculture; trade tariffs of up to 50 per cent would force farmers out of business, supermarkets would be flooded with low quality produce from South America and Asia, a reduction in migrant labour would create a recruitment crisis and our green countryside would become a desolate landscape all environmental safeguards are thrown into the bonfire. 

Now that we are ten months down the line how many of these apocalyptic predictions ring true? Or was this another example of what many Brexiteers have dubbed “project fear” from the remain campaign?

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Like most things the answer is not black or white but an overwhelming shade of grey.  While the Government has eased farmers’ concerns by guaranteeing EU subsidy payments until 2020, the UK has merely put off the cliff edge. Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom and her team have so far been vague over the details of what British farming will look like post-CAP, which is affecting confidence with a recent NFU survey showing that farmers intend to cut investment on land by 31 per cent over the next three years.

While there are concerns about UK farming going over this cliff edge with no alternative framework in place, CAP has by no means been a perfect system for the UK. It has often been criticised for enforcing rules such as the three-crop rule and forcing farmers to leave land untouched, which has been detrimental to small farms. Leaving CAP will allow the UK to create its own bespoke policy and provide even higher support to farmers just like in Switzerland and Norway.

The UK is also a net loser when it comes to CAP contributions, receiving less than the €3.1bn it contributes (2015 figure), and with a significant chunk of that going to wealthy landowners. A recent Greenpeace investigation revealed that the top 100 recipients of EU direct payments last year received more than the bottom 55,119 combined.  Under a new system the UK could find more efficient ways to spend this money, however, with the NHS and social care systems under threat the Government may see this pot of money as a political football in which to increase spending in other areas (£350m a week in the NHS anyone?).

As for the potential of tariffs, it is another unknown facing farmers. The EU is the most important trading partner for most agricultural sectors, in some cases making up to 80 per cent of exports. If the UK was forced to fall back on WTO rules there would be economic consequences, especially in the shorterm.

There are also serious concerns that in the UK’s desire to set up new trade arrangements with countries around the world, UK farmers could be vulnerable to cheap imports from agricultural powerhouses such as Brazil and the United States. While this could result in cheaper food for consumers, it would have a devastating impact on British farmers who would have to match lower standards or go out of business.

However, at a recent Lords EU Committee covering Farm Animal Welfare, Peers discussed recent WTO case law that showed countries can set standards for imports so long as they do not discriminate. If the UK could repeat this, it would alleviate concerns.

Yet, perhaps the biggest threat to agriculture is that of employment. Despite Andrea Leadsom’s bold target of reaching three million farming apprentices by 2020, there is currently not enough demand amongst British workers for the number of agricultural jobs in need of filling. While it is plausible for the Government to pursue this as a long-term strategy, the industry is right in its calls for the reintroduction of the seasonal agricultural scheme. 

While the future does seem unclear for British farmers with many bumps still in need of ironing out, it is not as dire as some would suggest. The industry is going from strength to strength and with some imaginative thinking and sensible leadership there is no reason why Brexit can’t be the beginning of a new future for British agriculture.

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