the US series ‘Justified’ one of the protagonists, Ma Bennett (Margo Martindale),
the head of a rather dysfunctional Appalachian family, occasionally solved
problems by serving her unsuspecting victims a jar of moonshine laced with
poison. “Now for the hard part” was her dry comment once the drink started to
is a bit like one of Ma Bennett’s concoctions. On January 31st Boris
Johnson fulfils his promise to “get Brexit done”, the UK is leaving the
European Union. On February 1st the hard part begins.
then on farmers will no longer receive payments from the EU under the Common
Agricultural Policy (CAP). The British government has promised to maintain the
payments until the end of the year. 2021 will be the start of a seven-year
transition period which will reshape British agriculture. ‘Public money for
public goods’ is the general headline for what is supposed to happen, but so
far there is no definition of what ‘public goods’ are or how they will be
measured, and there is no regulatory body to establish standards and enforce
it’s all at least a year away, you may think. But for a farm family planning
for the future that is no time at all: planting and stockbreeding decisions
like tupping* ewes (or not) have to be taken well in advance. According to
DEFRA, farm subsidy payments on average make up half of an average farm’s
income. But in disadvantaged (from a farming point) areas – mountainous and
wet, well suited for sheep and beef cattle but not much else – subsidies can
make up 90% of the farm income. The agricultural bill which is making its way
through parliament at the moment is giving a hint of what’s to come: Farmers
will be given the option to take a lump sum of the subsidies they likely could
expect and invest them into their business – or get out of farming altogether.
a journalist writing mostly about food and agriculture I went to Birmingham at
the beginning of January for LAMMA, a large show of agricultural machinery and
technology. It is a good opportunity to talk to farmers and manufacturers.
‘There are three things we can do: add value to produce on farm, sell directly
and find some kind of a niche’, one farmer told me, who is thinking about
milling his grain into flour to be sold online, and who contemplates going
organic because of the higher margin. But another trend is already obvious, too:
large farms, in particular arable ones, are working towards a future in which
they manage without subsidies. And they need to grow. ‘See your neighbour
struggle without subsidies and go bust – that’s your chance to buy his land’,
the CEO of one machinery company told me. One of his customers had done just that
and was now farming 3,200 hectares, up from 2,400. ‘British agriculture is
going the way US agriculture has gone years ago. The change may happen a bit
slower, but it will happen’.
does this matter? Big farms are managed differently: They are less diverse,
more likely to grow crops in large monocultures which are more susceptible to
pests, and therefore will be treated with more pesticides. And since monocultures
provide ideal conditions for pesticide resistance to develop, more pesticides
and pesticide mixes will have to be applied more often. A recent study showed
that in 1998 on average 1.03kg of glyphosate per hectare were applied, today it
is between 6 and 10kg.
is why the predicted ‘get big or get out’ trend in British farming will have a
direct impact on our food: it will likely be produced with more chemicals and
less sustainably. And we will have less choice: large farms usually try to
maximise the yields because even in a year with low commodity prices they will
be able to make a profit because of the quantities they sell. Small farms oft
are much more diverse in an effort to hedge their bets: if one crop fails or
the price is low there is likely to be other produce that may allow the farm to
turn a profit.
uncertainty around subsidies is just one part of the post-Brexit problem. The
other one is the “hard part”, the trade negotiations. Boris Johnson recently
said it was ‘epically likely’ that a trade deal with the EU would happen before
the 11 months transition period ends in December – a period Johnson has said he
will not extend, a commitment that has been enshrined into law. Brexiters
continue to claim that in trade negotiations the British dog tail will wag the
EU dog, they say the EU is more dependent on trade with the UK than the other
way round. That is demonstrably false: half of British exports go to EU
countries, EU exports to the UK amount to only 10%.
that matters to farmers, sheep and beef farmers in particular, and to the food sector
on the whole: They rely on exports. ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it’ –
this proverb is the perfect summary to the British Bexit dilemma: In order to
continue near frictionless trade with the EU, Britain will have to stay
aligned, it will have to comply with pretty much all EU rules, from
environmental to food standards, labour laws and much more. But Britain does
not want to be beholden to Brussels, that was the whole point of Brexit!
However, once Britain starts setting its own
rules and diverges from Brussels, the trade with the EU will become increasingly
more complicated – from tariffs to costly third-party certifications and added
paperwork. In short: frictionless trade means staying aligned, diverging means
export barriers. And this is the really hard part: in particular sheep farmers
rely on exporting lamb to the Continent. If these exports are hit by tariffs of
up to 45%, they will be unable to compete and for many there will be no option
but to give up farming altogether.
what about a US trade deal? That would be laced with poison, literally: Britain
would have to allow imports of chlorinated chickens, beef and dairy treated
with growth hormones, GM (genetically modified, herbicide tolerant) seeds would
have to be allowed in imports and on British fields… Britain would have to accept
US production standards and methods – with pretty appalling consequences for
the quality of most of our food – and the environment. Yes, there will always
be farmers who will produce delicious, organic food to the highest standard –
at a price some people will continue to be able to easily afford. But a lot of
people won’t. They rely on cheap food – and chlorinated chicken, intensively
farmed, with no animal welfare standards to speak of, will be that cheap food.
is why British organic and regenerative family farms need all the support we
can give them. It’s the only way we’ll be able to survive “the hard part”.
*tupping: a ram is put with the ewes in the hope they will get pregnant.
Marianne Landzettel is a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years.
Follow her on twitter at @M_Landzettel
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