What next for British agriculture: Farmers and food businesses reflect on Brexit

At our recent session on ‘Nitrogen pollution’ at the Oxford Real Farming Conference, Robert Craig, a large-scale, Cumbrian dairy farmer, spoke openly about his position on the idea of a nitrogen tax. Acknowledging that significant damage is caused by nitrogen use in agriculture, Robert explained that, due to the current economic environment, there is a strong business case for its use. In light of this, and at the start of what will surely be an eventful and affirming year in terms of agricultural policy in the UK, we spoke to Robert about his thoughts on the uncertainties facing dairy farming post-Brexit.

Robert and his wife Jackie have four teenage children. The Craig’s operate three dairy farming businesses farming around 2000 acres with almost 1500 cows across the North of England in Cumbria and Northumberland. Taking the less conventional route towards modern dairy farming, Robert operates a grass-based farming system grazing cows for 270 days of the year. A 2012 Nuffield Scholar, Robert travelled extensively studying global food chain sustainability. Robert is a director of First Milk, the member owned dairy cooperative, and also a trustee of The Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers and The Angus McDonald Trust.

“My main concern is that the leaving terms [of Brexit] may prevent the current UK Government from being as radical as it needs to be. Trade agreements, although needed to protect some sectors, could mean future domestic policy is less effective in delivering the change needed [in our farming system] while also making subsidised imports more attractive. It’s very concerning that many prominent members of the Cabinet still see one of the great benefits of Brexit as the opportunity to ramp up the imports of cheap food even though we’re still not clear what the final deal will look like or even if there’s going to be a deal at all. Secondly with almost full employment in many rural areas, my concern would be the availability of labour and the absence of young people entering the industry. This is already a huge barrier to many farming and rural businesses and the uncertainty Brexit brings is only increasing these problems.

Brexit, of course, offers many great opportunities to British farmers which together could drive a very different, more sustainable [and] more productive agriculture in the future. The opportunity for British agriculture is to reengage with our consumers, telling the story of local, sustainable and valuable food production rather than the race to the bottom – the economies of scale model we’ve grow weary with, driven by the CAP. We must grasp the opportunity to develop a clear vision for the industry which would focus on educating society, restoring pride in farming and food production and which would see consumers value food for its provenance and its nutrition over its price and convenience.

Sudden changes in support payments could have a devastating impact on certain sectors of UK agriculture. I don’t think government appreciates that upland livestock farmers are totally dependent on the combination of support payments and export markets; the loss of either could lead to a very rapid and dramatic restructuring of these sectors. It is essential that farming businesses are given time to adapt and transition to any new support scheme. Rapid implementation would only result in the UK becoming even more dependent on imports, while exporting the problems associated with cheap industrialised food overseas, where we have little influence over production and farming methods.

It’s essential we halt and reverse the relentless drive to deliver cheap, valueless food. Decades of cheap food policy leaves primary producers with few options other than to adopt the intensification of farming systems. Large-scale marginal intensive agriculture generates huge external (yet hidden) associated costs which consumers never associate with the cheap food they’re buying and consuming. We have to find a way of educating consumers and accurately calculating these hidden costs and incorporating them into the price of food. Only when we start doing this we can begin to stem the already huge and rapidly increasing associated health costs caused by poor diet and nutrition following decades of cheap food policy.

Already Brexit has affected many farming businesses as well as the wider food processing industry. The uncertainty surrounding future trade agreements along with the lack of clarity about both the amount and detail of government support schemes, has had a negative effect on the confidence and progression of the industry. Undoubtedly, some sectors will be worse off post-Brexit. Export opportunities and support payments are crucial to some sectors more than others. The dairy industry may fare reasonably well with an already sizeable trade deficit, whereas upland sheep farming could see significant restructuring if both trade and support goes against them. I hope the UK depends less on food imports in the future – but I fear much of this will depend on the vision of who’s in charge of policy and how much society values domestic food production.

Sustainable Food Trust’s Response

Robert is entirely right in his position that we need to halt and reverse the relentless drive to deliver cheap and valueless food. Through our work on the true cost of UK food, the Sustainable Food Trust has been demonstrating the substantial externalities that are involved in industrial food production. Through our research, we found that for each £1 spent on food in the shops, consumers incur extra hidden costs of £1 to public and planetary health. These extra costs are not paid by the food businesses that cause them, nor are they included within the retail price of food. Instead they are passed on to society in a range of hidden ways – meaning that UK consumers are, in effect, paying twice for their food.

Those who pollute or degrade ecosystems, do not pay for the damage they cause. Conversely, those who farm more sustainably are forced to cover the higher cost of producing food in more beneficial ways. This means there is no business case for producers to adopt more sustainable approaches. The Government can and must factor in these hidden costs and benefits when considering the future of food and farming post-Brexit. In order to rectify this dynamic, the post-Brexit Agriculture Bill should aim to create a system that recognises the true cost of food production and adopts a whole-farm approach to integrating efficient and sustainable food production with practices that enhance natural and human capital while instituting a strong polluter pays principle.

That said, Robert’s concerns about the future of UK trade deals has the ability to undermine any reform that the Defra and the Secretary of State want to put in place. By allowing cheap food produced to lower standards into the UK, farmers will be undercut and unable to compete on a fair and level playing field. Such a move could potentially be disastrous for UK farmers, for animal welfare and for the environment, as well as failing to meet the expectations of the British public. We need to ensure that any future trade deal – whether with Brazil, the US or even the EU – maintains the highest level of food standards. There needs to be adequate checks and balances in place to guarantee that any trade deal maintains the highest standards. We feel that it is essential for the SFT as a member of civil society to raise questions over regulatory standards, in order to ensure that a future trade deal remains fair and safe. We cannot allow imported food that has been produced to a lower standard to undercut the economic viability of UK farmers and generate a race to the bottom.

For more on the SFT’s position on the Agriculture Bill, our policy paper is available here.

This series is not meant to endorse particular businesses or farms, but rather seeks to offer a variety of perspectives on the impact of Brexit on agriculture and the food supply chain.


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