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.

This week we speak to Ben Pugh, founder and CEO of Farmdrop, the “ethical grocery store” that delivers high-quality food direct from local producers to consumers across London, Bristol and Bath. In 2012, Ben spotted an opportunity for mobile technology to cut out the middlemen of supermarkets and wholesalers from the food supply chain, and in doing so give a better deal to both farmers and consumers. Their sustainable sourcing policy provides information as to exactly how Farmdrop manage to “keep it local”, “put animals first”, support sustainable land stewardship practices and pay farmers a fair price.

“I firmly believe that the clock is ticking on the industrialised, factory model of farming. It is destroying the natural resources that it has relied on for so long to maintain its profitability. If there is one silver lining from Brexit, it is that it is has given the UK a once in a generation opportunity to completely overhaul the way we regulate and subsidise farming in Britain.

To say that the current subsidy system is archaic would be a gross understatement. British farmers receive around £3.2 billion in subsidies but the vast majority of that money does not support sustainable or higher animal welfare production –  only 3% of UK agricultural land is organic and a quarter of all cropland is used to produce livestock feed. Payments under the existing Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are based on how much land is owned. Not only does this reward large landowners (recipients of the subsidy include the Duke of Westminster, the Queen and a Saudi Prince), it also means that we are using public money to subsidise the production of factory farmed food.

Post-Brexit, I am worried about the potential scope of new free trade deals with non-EU countries. As with TTIP, those of us who care passionately about the quality and provenance of food will need to pressure the Government to make sure that free trade with the rest of the world does not mean importing poor quality food through the back door. This needs to be included as a key consideration in the Agriculture Bill.

Another big change is that Brexit has significantly lowered the value of the pound, which is making agricultural imports more expensive. If this encourages more retailers to source food locally then great, but my big concern is that it will just accelerate the practice of ‘optimisation’ in processed food. The supermarkets’ high volume, low margin business model means that when prices rise, the supermarkets bring in the food consultants to reformulate the products with higher levels of sugars and other chemicals to keep food prices down while preserving its so-called ‘mouthfeel’.

But I don’t want to moan! I’ve never been more optimistic about the future of UK agriculture. At Farmdrop, we are showing that with mobile technology you can put the power back into the hands of sustainable food producers, where they can seek more profitability and allow consumers to access their food at lower prices.”

Sustainable Food Trust’s reaction

Similar to Ben, we believe that our departure from the European Union offers the opportunity to rethink how we support farming. One of the key provisions of the Agriculture Bill that is currently moving through the House of Commons is the phasing out of area-based payments. Area-based payments, which make up Pillar I funding under the EU’s CAP, have come in for widespread criticism in recent years as Ben rightly pointed out. Most of the money has gone to large landowners, and the payments have been available to all farms regardless of their production methods. While the SFT accepts that the mechanism of area-based payments under the CAP is flawed, we maintain that there is value in area-based payments.

We believe that a sustainable food system would be most effectively delivered through a support package based on land area, ideally on a whole farm scale. The SFT feels it is essential to bring about a systemic shift towards more environmentally sustainable farming methods, rather than piecemeal adoption of environmental stewardship. We would suggest that this shift could best be delivered by including area-based payments within the proposed Environmental Land Management Scheme.

To achieve the systemic shift towards more sustainable farming methods, we need to unlock the barriers to change. One of the key issues that limits many farmers from adopting more environmentally sensitive practices is the cost. Their current business model means that they are often locked into a centralised supply chain of supermarkets with decreasing farm-gate prices and strict contracts. Businesses like Farmdrop can help to create the economic conditions where farmers are financially rewarded for adopting sustainable practices, and agroecological farming can become increasingly profitable. Our hope is that these new distribution models, in conjunction with the Government’s new Environmental Land Management Scheme, will allow small-scale farming and growing that embraces heritage breeds, artisanal processing and the flourishing of traditional skills.

However, no matter how well-designed and environmentally-minded the Government’s new Environmental Land Management Scheme is, a free trade deal with non-EU countries (such as Australia, the United States or New Zealand) could undermine these gains. As Ben points out, such an agreement risks allowing cheap, low quality imports that could undercut the ability of farmers to deliver a sustainable future for UK food and farming. If UK producers are placed at a competitive disadvantage, domestic farmers will be driven to drop standards in order to force down costs and remain viable. Such a move would have a deleterious effect on public health and prove disastrous for British wildlife and the wider environment by tipping the scales away from sustainable agroecological farming systems. We believe that the Government needs to ensure that there are adequate checks and balances in place to guarantee that any trade deal with non-EU countries maintains the highest standards.

To read more about our proposal for the future of UK farming, you can read our policy briefing on the Agriculture Bill 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.

 

Photo: Farmdrop 

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