The debate surrounding the future of migrant labour in UK agriculture post-Brexit has tended towards a view that British food production relies on the availability of cheap, seasonal labour, and that this cannot be reliably found within the UK. As a result, proposals to create a seasonal workers scheme to allow migrant workers into Britain on temporary visas has generated much traction since the referendum.

Migrants have long been vital to British farming and, once we leave the EU, our borders should remain open to foreigners looking to live and work here in the future. However, the agriculture labour debate sparked by Brexit raises some crucial questions that we should take this opportunity to address: chiefly, why is it that agricultural work in the UK – seasonal and otherwise – is so unattractive to British workers, and increasingly foreign workers as well? And what can be done about it?

The current agriculture market has created a race to the bottom on labour costs and driven a demand for highly flexible workers, particularly in the horticultural sector. Looking forward, our vision should be not to simply replicate this model, but to build an agricultural policy that is more sustainable, environmentally, economically and socially. This is possible, and indeed research demonstrates a strong link between sustainable innovations in agriculture and increased high quality employment opportunities.

If Brexit was a vote against an economic and political system which millions felt themselves alienated from, then the political response must look to build industries that offer stable and fulfilling employment opportunities. Anything else will be politically unsustainable as voters become further disenfranchised and unemployment grows. Agriculture can be no exception to this rule; more importantly, there is no need for it to be.

Cheap food and underpaid labour

More than most other industries, UK agriculture is hugely reliant on EU migrants; each year up to 80,000 seasonal workers come to the UK from EU countries to work on farms, while almost 35,000 foreign workers are employed in UK farming on a permanent basis.

Yet, even with full access to the EU labour market, farm managers are struggling to recruit enough workers. According to an NFU survey reported in Farmer’s Weekly, “…29% of growers experienced problems recruiting enough labour in 2015, and [even before Brexit] some 66% expect reductions in labour availability by 2018, with 43% anticipating labour shortages.”

To understand why agricultural work is so often unattractive to workers, we must look at least in part towards agricultural policy. Under the CAP, farming policy has been primarily geared towards the production of cheap food for all. The external and indirect costs of this cheap food have been much discussed, with many commentators pointing out the hidden costs of environmental degradation, healthcare and billions of pounds of taxpayer subsidies.

Less discussed is how this policy framework has resulted in a reduction in stable and well paid employment opportunities in agriculture. A combination of factors – including uneven distribution of Pillar 1 CAP subsidies, artificially low diesel prices, a supermarket buyers monopoly that forces down prices and a food market that offers little differentiation between sustainable and industrial produce (aside from the organic label) – has created a market which systematically favours large scale, heavily mechanised cereal and stock farming.

Horticultural producers fare particularly badly under this system. Fruit and vegetable production is labour intensive and subject to seasonal spikes in labour demand. For British fruit and vegetable producers to compete with imports from countries where labour is cheap, they are forced to cut costs wherever possible, pushing labour prices down and leading to some high profile court cases where a minority of unscrupulous gang leaders have mercilessly exploited migrant workers.

This is compounded by technology which has allowed supermarkets to reduce their own financial risk by using intelligent stock ordering systems that only request new stock as and when the consumer buys the product. This creates an unreliable buyers’ market, as producers often receive orders just hours before delivery is due. In response, many producers employ workers on zero hour contracts and tailor their work force each morning to the size of that day’s orders – meaning that workers are often only told if they are working or not, shortly before the day begins. This saves the producer money as they no longer have to pay full employment or any of the associated benefits.

There is no shortage of UK workers who could potentially be prepared to work temporarily in agriculture, if they felt it was a more attractive proposition. Temporary work is appealing to a large section of the UK population – 1.6 million people are currently looking for work, according to the Office for National Statistics, while over 8 million currently work part time and a quarter of the population has worked as a temporary agency worker at some point in their life. Almost a million students are in the market for temporary and part time jobs – peaking in the summer months. Of these workers, 73% find employment in the lowest skilled jobs in the economy. If seasonal farm work was shown to be an attractive short term job, it has the potential to be particularly attractive to this demographic, as it is in other European Countries.

Education and building a career in farming

The current education system does not produce school leavers with the practical skills or inclination for seasonal agricultural work. In the recent past, many schools taught pupils a wide range of vocational skills and applied sciences, including the basics of food production and rural science, but these skills have been largely dropped from the modern curriculum. Workers from Eastern Europe, on the other hand, often bring with them advanced and varied practical skills, a cultural connection to farming and the strength and proclivity for hard physical work. It is perhaps no surprise that employers often favour them over young Britons.

Once again, this trend can be linked partly to that of cheaper food. With food production accounting for a dwindling percentage of Britain’s GDP, the skills that go with it have become undervalued. Meanwhile, the cheapness of food relative to income has resulted in a steady decline in the number of families growing vegetables or keeping small livestock, and with this, the knowledge associated with it, furthering the cultural rift between food and its production.

There are exceptions to this, of course. Recent years have seen a growing focus on local food markets, a surge in community food growing, especially in urban areas, and a re-invigorated interest in the origin of our food. Each weekend, millions of people take to their allotments or vegetable patches, where they relish the opportunity to dig around in the dirt. Yet policy makers have done little to consider what lessons this trend may hold for wider food production. Indeed, the problem, it appears, is not that farm work in general lacks the requisite lure for British workers, but that too little has been done to build a dynamic and diverse agricultural sector that trains and welcomes new entrants.

Research shows that agricultural work tends to be more satisfying and appealing to workers on farms where sustainability is an important goal. This has been put down to a number of factors, including the comparatively positive public image held by such farms; the social element that results from the larger labour forces required when chemical inputs are reduced; and the often increased need for creative problem solving, research and development to meet sustainability goals. Farms prioritizing sustainability are also more likely to practice farm processing and direct marketing, which further provides job opportunities and important career experience within a diverse sector.

Employment opportunities in sustainable agriculture

Considerable research in recent years suggests that agriculture has the potential to offer significant employment opportunities, when operated in a sustainable and less industrial fashion.

According to the European Commission’s 2016 report Sustainability Now!, “…new research tends to demonstrate that this [less industrial model] by no means would imply a reduction in output, nor substantial price increases.”

The report points to examples where reductions in chemical inputs have produced significant economic savings. For example, the report states: “Real life testing by a French agro-research institute has shown that halving both nitrate and herbicide use has produced a 200 euro/hectare better result in grain production, mainly attributable to a larger presence of natural pollinators in a more diversified landscape. It represents a double bonus for farm income and environment.”

Studies into employment opportunities in more sustainable farming have often used organic agriculture as an existing model on which to base projections. Consumers International reports that organic farming employs 32% more people than its conventional counterpart. A study published by GHK Consulting in 2007 found that if there were a 10% shift in demand from conventional to organic farming, it would create a net gain of 43,834 jobs (66,012 direct jobs less 22,718 indirect jobs lost in the agrichemical input supply chain) in 27 EU countries.

In 2012, a FAO Green Jobs Report noted that significant “agricultural productivity gains and economic benefits are possible with the adoption of more labour intensive green farming practices”.

The report goes on to note that: “A shift towards sustainable, localized agricultural models would create additional jobs in localized production of inputs, manufacture of mechanized farm systems and construction and maintenance of local and rural infrastructures, as they must necessarily accompany the transition.”

As noted in a 2008 report from UNEP, a policy shift towards sustainable agriculture would generate significant employment in research and development:

“[More sustainable] farming is knowledge intensive and requires research and extension systems, “…that can generate and transfer knowledge and decision-making skills to farmers rather than provide blanket recommendations over large areas. Developing the ecological literacy of farmers could, therefore, create significant employment.”

A Welsh sustainable farming project offers a relevant example: the Tir Cymen scheme was created to promote sustainable farming in three areas of rural Wales. This scheme increased casual employment on the farms by 98%, producing 204 casual jobs and 62 person-years of environmental work. A government study found that if the scheme were replicated across Wales, it would generate 1,230 years in full-time jobs, save £11million in welfare benefits and create 150-200 new jobs in local businesses.

Green Jobs in an ecosystem services market

The FAO report goes on to consider the employment opportunities that would arise out of a new system for valuing environmental services: “If there were means by which farmers could be compensated for their contribution to improved environmental conditions that are shared by the broader community (i.e. financial mechanisms for payments for environmental services), the enhanced value of additional skilled labour inputs for green agriculture practices could be more clearly recognized and included in the overall return on investment.”

Much has been made of the economic and ecological opportunities that could be offered through the development of a payment for ecosystem services market, but less of the significant employment opportunities that would follow. This is also true of the ‘public money for public goods’ subsidy model currently being proposed by the Natural Capital Committee. These conservation models should be integrated into agricultural policy, bringing new sources of revenue to farmers and new employment opportunities for skilled and unskilled workers.

It is telling that agriculture is generally unpopular as a choice of work, yet environmental and conservation jobs are often highly sought after, among graduates in particular. Payment is of course one cause, but the less easily quantified reasons must also be taken into account – including stigmatisation of farmers, the solitary nature of much farming and antisocial hours. Many sustainable farming practices offer an alternative, bringing increased opportunities for knowledge sharing, co-working and often a greater level of appreciation from consumers, local communities and the public.

Looking forward, we face two important challenges: to build a rural economy that is inclusive and a food supply that is sustainable. We should take the opportunity of Brexit to work towards a system that delivers both together.

Should you have any comments or wish to discuss the above in more detail please contact:

Luke Dale-Harris lldh@hotmail.co.uk 07495725844

Photograph: David Wright

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