I wrote the original version of this article nearly 15 months ago. I have dusted it off and updated it because by doing so I can illustrate that environmental issues are driving the agenda in shaping farming and environmental policy for a post-Brexit UK. It also coincides with the last edition of Sunday Telegraph leading with a not dissimilar main headline. For Ireland this is important because what consumers, voters and politicians think in the UK will have a major impact on the functioning of its major export market is going forwards.
From what one has read, many within the UK’s farming community voted to leave the EU. They were probably aware that they were risking their CAP-originating payments but the idea that an EU exit would massively reduce farming’s bureaucratic burden was just too attractive.
As trade barriers come down as trade agreements eventually fall into place a priority for UK farming must be on developing the Little Red Tractor and protected geographic indicators to protect UK producers in their home market. For the informed consumer it will be more about traceability, origin and how it is produced and that bodes well for a farming community that will still be producing 60% or so of the food for what may likely remain a growing population.
It will not be an easy road ahead. Direct payments will probably fall but will domestic food market prices rise sufficiently to compensate? Alternatively, will farmers be able to expand and/or become more efficient to make up for open-market-price shortfalls? Will deregulation and bureaucratic simplification provide the cost savings required? It is a myriad of ‘ifs’.
What is becoming less of an ‘if’ is that the green/environmental lobby sees Brexit as THE opportunity to drive through major farming/food policy changes in the UK. The UK was already a leader in the EU when it came to environmental land management schemes and does one expect this to change post-Brexit given that the UK has numerous environmental organisations, and many have massive membership? Driving through change is likely to be easier for the latter lobby in the UK than it would have been in a 28-member EU. Brexit is probably their opportunity of a lifetime.
Many policy statements about post-Brexit farming/food/environmental/landscape/rural policy have already appeared. They are being published at a time when Climate Change is to the fore for many; be they voters, consumers or taxpayers, or all three. The major issues of pollinator and biodiversity loss are increasingly hitting the headlines, as are nitrates and fresh and seawater pollution, not to mention the state of that most fundamental of agricultural assets, the soil. Our food production methods impact upon them all.
My personal view is that the farming community needs to work with these organisations. They do not have the weight to fight against them in the long run. The farming lobby may believe that they have ‘science’ on their side and they may also believe that they have the moral authority of ‘we must feed the world’ but, ultimately, will they have the political clout to gainsay the green and environmental lobbies? And there is also the ultimate issue in a free-market economy, these lobbyists are also the very same consumers that the farming community will need to sell to if they are to survive economically in an environment where you are either close to your local consumer or you get trodden underfoot by low-cost, trade-agreement-assisted producers from far afield.
Brexit is changing the farming and food playing field in a way that has probably not happened since 1947. From a farming and food policy perspective it is a one-off; not least because, unlike 1947, social media exists to empower the individual. It may end up as a battleground between two opposing views, but it should not be allowed to do so. The UK farming community needs to work out how to protect itself, not from those at home, but from global free-trade. This trade will need to be countered by UK farmers and food producers having [transparent] standards [that are recognized by their consumers] as being well over and above those used elsewhere. And these standards need to be developed in partnership with those organisations in the UK that have concerns for the numerous issues that can be loosely termed ‘environmental’. Right now, the UK farmer needs to avoid fighting with the very people who must become their new best friends.
I suspect that in the longer-term this will also be the more financially rewarding route for the farming community to follow. The alternative that will be proposed will be to run upon the technological treadmill even faster than now to reduce production costs through efficiency gains. Looking back over 50 years of such, does it really have a great track record when it comes to enhancing farm incomes? The farming community should be asking whether it is likely to do so post-Brexit. It may then also discover that a revolution in thinking is needed.
It is strange to think that in the end Brexit may not deliver the Utopian, de-regulated farming and food system for the British farmer to operate in. Far from it. It may end up being even more regulated than it was when EU regulations were tempered by the difficulties associated with getting 28 states to agree upon what they should be. It is a case of be careful what you wish for.
What may be stranger still is that farmers demand regulation to create the product differentiation [what else is Little Red Tractor?] that will allow them to withstand the impact of cheap food imports. It may even reach the extent that the regulatory frameworks are not imposed by government but by the farmers, working together, themselves. They may well be what their customers demand of them in exchange for paying a premium and/or buying local.
It is also possible that regulatory frameworks will be required if farmers wish to avail themselves of support payments from the UK government / tax payer; not least because those payments are more likely to come from environmental [in a broad sense] payments than direct support for food production. I am not sure if this is the conclusion that the Brexit campaigners expected.
There is a common factor in the two paragraphs above and that is that the premium-paying, issues-aware consumer and the politically-savvy, issues-aware tax-payer are one and the same. Are UK farmers the jam in the sandwich on this one? If they want to receive government funds and/or premium payments for their products will they have to dance a jig for those who are, de facto, one and the same? It is not a strategically strong position to be in.
So where does this leave Irish farmers given so many Irish food exporters go to the UK? Will it be a straight choice between competing head-on with major producer-exporters like the South Americans or will it be about producing food to the same, post-Brexit, standards that many UK farmers will aspire to as they attempt to protect themselves within their own market. Will Ireland need to be working to a Little Red Tractor plus, plus standard? I believe that they will need to, not least because by doing so they will also be creating the premium products that they need to access the top of the international food markets per se. And those are currently occupied by the French and Italians [often] with their designated-origin [a regulatory framework] premium products.
Brexit will likely change the food and farming landscapes and it may be in a way that was not immediately obvious when the UK electorate went to the polls. It will mean change and it is important for the Irish farming and food sectors to closely watch what happens as the UK, freed up from the influences of Brussels and the CAP, may enact a green-driven revolution.