British farmers are “running out of patience” with both sides in the Brexit negotiations, after Friday’s (20 October) EU summit did little to allay fears of a mutually damaging no-deal scenario.
Farmer’s organisations have also dismissed as “not feasible” UK government claims that Britain could simply up domestic food production after Brexit.
British Transport Minister Chris Grayling caused a stir when he told the BBC that the nation’s farmers would respond to the increased cost of imported food after a ‘hard Brexit’ by producing more themselves.
“We will grow more here and import more from around the world,” he said.
The minister added that the EU would do all it could to avoid this happening because of the damaging effect it would have on their farmers, for whom Britain is a major export market.
The UK currently produces 60% of its own food, according to the National Union of Farmers (NFU). 70% of its imports come from other European Union countries and 60% of its exports go to the EU.
In the event of a no-deal Brexit, these exchanges with the bloc could face an average tariff of 22%, the chairman of supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, David Tyler, told the Sunday Times. This would lead to a dramatic increase in food prices in the UK and harm exporters in the EU.
A spokesperson for the British government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) supported Grayling’s claim, telling EURACTIV.com that “outside the EU and the bureaucracy of the CAP our farmers will be able to focus on producing more fantastic British food”.
But others say this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how agriculture works. Responding to the European Council’s conclusion that insufficient progress had been made for the Brexit talks to move on to the next stage, NFU President Meurig Raymond said: “Farmers and growers are fast running out of patience with both parties over the Article 50 negotiations.
“The time has come for both the UK and EU governments to acknowledge that businesses and individuals across Europe will suffer if a deal securing an ongoing and closely-integrated economic relationship is not reached.”
Few economic sectors can respond immediately to changing market circumstances, “and this is particularly true of farming,” Green MEP Molly Scott-Cato told EURACTIV.
“The decision about which crops to plant for any particular season is made years ahead, livestock are raised over a number of years, and stock breeding is on an even longer timescale,” said the lawmaker, who is a member of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee.
The NFU’s Director of EU Exit and International Trade Nick von Westenholz agrees. He stressed in a recent statement that a number of factors in the UK’s agricultural model mean that “simply upping production to quickly offset any reduction in food imports isn’t feasible”.
Food self-sufficiency: big changes needed
The drive for greater self-sufficiency is not controversial in itself. Rather, critics question the timescale involved and the assumption that self-sufficiency can be increased while opening up the British market to imports from more competitive producers around the world.
According to DEFRA’s own figures, Britain could produce up to 80% of its own food. For Scott-Cato, this is an achievable and worthy target, but it would require a sea-change in consumption patterns led by an integrated agriculture and food policy focused on seasonal and local food. “For example,” she said, “this would require us to return to the days when the apple, rather than the banana, was our most popular fruit.”
But she stressed that expecting such deep changes to decades-old consumption habits to occur within the space of a few months was not realistic.
And farmers face more immediate concerns in the short term: the NFU’s von Westenholz pointed out that their first post-Brexit crop will be in the ground in less than a year’s time, and they still do not know what tariff regimes they may face when the time comes to harvest.
On top of which, the supply of seasonal labour farmers rely on appears to be drying up: some 80,000 migrants work in Britain’s fields every year, but arrivals are down 17% since the Brexit vote. This summer, farms went short-handed as they were unable to fill 1,500 positions.
Given this uncertainty, Scott-Cato said, Britain is likely to begin life after the EU with a drop in agricultural production, rather than the increase Grayling evoked.
Subsidies in post-Brexit agricultural policy
In the meantime, efforts at adaptation are further hampered by the uncertainty surrounding the UK’s future agricultural policy, which the government has yet to announce.
The NFU last week published its recommendations for a post-Brexit agricultural policy. The document focusses heavily on measures to counter market volatility but also insists that direct payments to active farmers “must remain a key component of a domestic agricultural policy”.
The government has clearly tied future farm subsidies to “public goods” such as environmental stewardship. DEFRA Minister Michael Gove said in July that “support can only be argued for against other competing public goods if the environmental benefits of that spending are clear”.
In a recent interview with EURACTIV, shadow DEFRA Minister David Drew said this meant farmers were facing a “cuts agenda” and that the current model of area-based subsidies under the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP) would almost certainly be abandoned. But the question of how farm income will be guaranteed after 2022, until when the government has promised to match the EU’s direct payments, remains unanswered for now.
Opening foreign markets
What is more, the government’s push to increase global trade in agricultural produce after leaving the EU has raised concerns that far from increasing the country’s self-sufficiency, UK farmers may be undercut by cheap imports and priced out of their own market.
The DEFRA spokesperson said: “The quality of British produce is known throughout the world, and outside the EU we’ll open up new markets so our farmers can compete on a global scale.”
But this highlights the tension at the heart of an agricultural policy that pays farmers to protect public goods while opening trade to partners with lower standards.
A no-deal scenario would leave the UK open to imports on WTO terms from countries like the United States and Brazil, where farmers’ production costs are lower due to weaker environmental and animal welfare standards, as well as the sheer scale of their farming units.
For Scott-Cato, even if free trade agreements with these countries are made, it is “unlikely” British farmers will ever be able to compete.
And the recent threat by the US to apply anti-dumping tariffs to imports of Spanish black olives illustrates how difficult it will be for Britain outside the EU to defend its use of subsidies to prop up uncompetitive farmers.