Over recent weeks I have been writing policy proposals for post-Brexit Britain. It is all highly relevant to Ireland? Simply, the market links are that strong. If Irish farmers aspire to compete in the UK after Brexit in an open market, maybe they will have to follow the same approaches being suggested for the British farming sector. Both face the same chill-wind prospects and both must react.
What makes the work fascinating is how extensive it must be. My 12 highly-structured chapters contain over 330 policy recommendations. Each policy statement is limited to one short paragraph. It is complex because food and farming is complex. Climate-change and environmental issues add another layer of complexity. It is a challenge to write a coherent, multiple-issue-addressing policy.
Market links aside, another relevance to Ireland is that my objective is policy which many interested parties can buy into. As we are seeing with the CAP reform process, many people want a say and very few are farmers. An expression I came across in a 1930s farming-policy text, was ‘the consumer-taxpayer’. It is one that farming leaders need to get their heads around as it is they who buy your produce and it is they who fund agricultural support. And, apparently, they want their say.
So how should British farmers react to Brexit? I have little doubt that their future lies by building stronger connections with the British consumer. That includes developing products to more clearly meet the consumers’ demands. It will mean changing some production practices to do so. It will require clear labelling and good communication. It will be about products with integrity and where production transparency is paramount. It will not be about a fancy label and promotional patter; that will get found out all too quickly.
There will be no room for telling the consumer that they are wrong. The consumer may choose to put an interpretation on an issue and so be it. There is no future in ‘educating’ the consumer. Hence, for example, animal welfare, less antibiotics, fertiliser and pesticides use, and pollinator wellbeing will come to the fore. Will the consumer be willing to pay for farming changes to address these issues? It is a question that can only be answered by giving them a chance to buy the product. And if the product is never offered we will never find out.
Secondly, the farmers’ role will be as a service-provider. They will be asked to deliver upon pre-determined targets and paid accordingly. Farm ‘payments’ will be linked to delivering change that is defined by policy and that will relate to, for example, reducing climate change emissions, landscape preservation, water-catchment management and flood prevention, and rebuilding biodiversity within the British farming environment. It may appear to be less relevant to Irish farmers but then UK policy may become a ‘radical’ example for CAP reform and a beacon of light to those who wish to see similar change in Ireland.
With Brexit, are British farmers caught between a rock and a hard place, between the consumer and the taxpayer? Or are they really becoming one and the same; the consumer-taxpayer? If so, they will end up calling the tune. This is not a British phenomenon, they will gain in strength in Ireland and in Europe. And it is also they who will define what is a premium market and if that is where you wish to be, you had better start listening, fast. If you do not, others will.
What I have been impressed with in recent weeks is how willing so many UK lobby groups are to engage in the farming, food, countryside, environment, rural community debate. There are some very powerful organisations involved. Whilst some within the Irish farming leadership have chosen to restart the climate-change debate, over the Irish Sea there appears to be a greater willingness on the part of the farming and environmental lobbies to engage. And high on their agenda is how to give the family farm a future. It also happens to be my starting point and it was when it came to writing my 333 policy recommendations.
In Ireland, the family farm is spoken of as all-important. But where is the coherent policy approach that will really give it a future? Where is the market engagement that will create the products that can provide the income to make Irish family farming sustainable? It is distressing to read about the inability of the farming and environmental lobbies in Ireland to get on the same page. The future for British farmers is totally dependent on that happening and, thankfully, there are more than a few people striving for it to happen. Ultimately, the future for family farms is about engaging with the consumer-taxpayer in all of their guises. Simply, here is no other way forwards.