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

With only a few months remaining before our scheduled departure from the European Union, Brexit is looming large on the horizon. As talk of transition, hard borders and ‘no-deal’ spreads, we want to find out how farmers and food businesses across the country are feeling about the future of UK agriculture. What threats and opportunities do they see? Has their perspective changed since 2016? What specific issues are their businesses facing, and what has the UK Government done to address those concerns? We’ve invited farmers and food businesses across the UK to share their thoughts.

Haydn Evans is a dairy and arable farmer from Wales. Haydn farms 97 hectares with his wife Janet and son Stuart. The farm is principally focused on dairy production, with 100 cows supplying milk to Rachel’s Dairy in Aberystwyth. The milk is used for the manufacture of yogurt. The cows are a mixture of traditional breeds – British Friesians, Dairy Shorthorns and Ayrshires.

The farm is in rotation, principally, with stubble turnips, wheat and whole top red and white clover with grass leys. In addition to chairing the Soil Association’s organic Farmer and Grower Board, Haydn also acts as a farmer member of the Agricultural Land Tribunal.

“At this juncture, nobody knows what type of Brexit will be negotiated. At best, it’s a continuation of current trading practices. At worst, it’s a reversion to WTO terms, if there is no deal. However, we already know that subsidies are going to change once we leave the EU. I would like to see more bespoke support systems with less regulation and more opportunity for innovation and investment that allows the rural economy to thrive. There has to be policy provisions to mitigate shocks to the market and reduce volatility. There needs to be accountability across the entire supply change to ensure fairness and transparency. All in all, we need a farming policy that ensures agriculture continues in a profitable manner – while meeting its environmental obligations – and is able to compete on a fair basis with imports.

Statistics for Wales: Split of land on agricultural holdings by usage 2018

The concerns of how Brexit will impact food and farming are especially important for Wales. Farming is the cornerstone of the £6.9 billion Welsh food and drink sector, which is the biggest employer in Wales, with approximately 240,000 people working within it. Welsh exports are valued at £337 million and the gross output of agriculture in Wales is valued at £1.6 billion, so a poorly constructed agricultural policy will have ramifications throughout the supply chain and across the entire economy of the country.

There is great concern about cheap foreign food flooding the UK market post-Brexit. With a predominance of permanent grassland in Wales, we are quite concerned over the potential impact to livestock sectors, as well as for horticulture. Neoliberals in the Government will want to source food from the cheapest places in the world to obviate any short or long-term supply problems, in order to meet food security obligations. This could mean a flood of foreign food produced to lower standards coming into UK supermarkets and undercutting UK farmers, who already produce on tight margins.

That said, one potential impact of Brexit is that the British pound could weaken, making foreign imports more expensive. This would provide UK producers an opportunity to increase their share of the market since the relative price of UK fruit and veg would drop. However, import displacement could only be achieved if UK producers were in a position to capitalize on the shifting market dynamic. If they didn’t have access to adequate labour, for example, they wouldn’t be able to increase production to meet demand.

In my opinion, the biggest concern facing the horticulture sector would be sourcing sufficient labour post-Brexit. If a lot of EU workers leave, it will present a serious challenge. Currently, 75% of seasonal labour in the horticultural sector is recruited from Romania and Bulgaria. If the Government does not introduce sufficient provisions to guarantee labour, we could see a lot of produce being left in the fields. Other sectors within food and farming would also be negatively impacted by a decline in labour. Abattoirs and packing houses are heavily dependent on foreign labour – 85% of the vets that are employed in approved meat establishments are non-UK nationals and 63% of workers in red and white meat processing plants are from countries within the European Union.”

The Sustainable Food Trust’s Response

Just like Haydn, the impact of Brexit on agricultural labour is a major concern for the SFT. Without adequate provisions, there will not be enough labour to meet the demands of the agrifood sector. Foreign labour is essential in all steps along the supply chain from low-skilled pickers to delivery drivers. The EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee in the House of Lords highlighted the need to guarantee the supply of EU labour, warning that the “entire food supply chain will be adversely affected by any loss of access to that labour pool”.

Overall, 20% of all regular full-time employees in agriculture are thought to be foreign nationals. Restricting access to workers would undermine productivity and damage businesses. Horticulture relies on migrants for critical jobs such as picking soft fruit and harvesting vegetables. While termed “low-skilled”, the work requires impressive dexterity and incredible speed. In some food and farming sectors the reliance on foreign workers is much greater. Approximately 40% of staff on egg farms and approximately 50% of staff in egg packing centres, were EU migrants. Haydn is correct to highlight the importance of EU nationals in slaughterhouses (which is often overlooked) and the SFT’s work on protecting small-scale abattoirs highlights the critical role that they play in the UK meat industry.

While previously, countries like Poland and Portugal dominated UK agricultural labour, the majority of low-skilled workers today are from Romania and Bulgaria. However, according to the 2016 NFU Seasonal Labour Provider Survey, 60% of labour suppliers to the horticulture sector were unable to meet the demand. Understanding that shifting EU attitudes towards the UK, the weakening pound and the growing economic success of Eastern Europe has led to a decline in interest in seasonal UK work, British gangmasters will need to consider other sources of labour in the future. By re-instituting the seasonal agriculture workers scheme (SAWS), workers from countries like Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova can be recruited to fill the essential roles in the agrifood supply chain.

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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