The ‘narrow path to a trade deal’ before the end of the transition period on 31st December is a tiny bit of good news in an otherwise dire scenario. The UK government promised us an ‘oven ready’ deal: British sovereignty and fabulous trade relationships. But to the continued frustration of Brexiters, the EU will not let us have our cake and eat it. From the start, trade talks with the EU were a seesaw: stay in the single market (or closely aligned) and get easy access. Deviate and face ever higher trade hurdles.
From January, long queues in Dover, and Kent turning into a parking lot for waiting lorries, will be the least of our problems. The really big issue will be paperwork. And that’s not just custom forms, but certificates of compliance, animal health certificates, phytosanitary certificates….
Talk to farm industry associations such as the AIC (Agricultural Industries Confederation) and the AEA (Agricultural Engineers Association) and the crushing cascade effect of a bare bones deal becomes clear. Take tractor sales. Most farmers trade in their old tractor when they buy a new piece of kit. Until now a lot of used machinery was sold on to eastern European countries. That will no longer be possible. From 1st January tractors will have to comply with EU standards on the day of import. In the past two years, EU emission standards for tractors have been tightened which means tractors built before 2019 cannot be sold into the EU anymore. And, as is the rule for all third countries, which the UK will be from January, all used agricultural machinery will need a phytosanitary certificate.
Expensive and hard to get – phytosanitary certificates
In the past, around one hundred such certificates for agricultural machinery were issued every year. In future, as many as 10,000 could be needed, says the AEA. Except there is neither the staff nor the lab capacity to provide even a fraction of them. As a consequence, the value of agricultural machinery will drop, farmers will use their kit longer – which will increase the demand for spare parts. If your combine breaks down in the middle of harvest you don’t have time to lose, but as deliveries may get stuck at the border, some agricultural machinery companies already contemplate airfreighting in spare parts. It will be expensive, but if the harvest is on the line, farmers may have no choice.
Or take feed. Importing soy beans may remain comparatively easy. But importing composite feed containing minerals in gelatine casings will require several different certificates, as such mixes include plant and animal (gelatine) components. And no, I am not making this up!
Or take seeds. Up to now, British seed companies worked with contract farmers in different European countries, able to propagate seeds under more favourable climatic conditions. Often seeds crossed borders within the EU multiple times. It’s all still possible, but at a price.
What’s the problem? It’s only some extra paperwork…
Apologies for getting into the weeds here, but the advantage of the ‘regulatory yoke’ of Brussels is that once standards have been agreed, the burden of checking and enforcing them is shared by all member countries, while everyone gets to enjoy the advantages. It’s efficient and cost effective. In future, the UK may set its own standards, but it will also have to create its own regulatory bodies, employ the necessary staff, provide lab capacity…. not just for phytosanitary certificates, but for everything: chemicals, pharmaceuticals, technical standards… A lot has been written about the battalion of customs officials we will need to recruit and train, but we also need an army of vets, lab technicians, bureaucrats and lawyers to deal with standards and regulations. We have neither. Nor does the government provide much help. On the government websites businesses are simply advised to seek the advice of consultants and lawyers.
British farmers producing food for British people?
Or not. The new agriculture bill talks a lot about trees and very little about food. Direct payments to farmers will be phased out and replaced by ‘public money for public goods’ – from hedgerows for birds and butterflies to good soil to help with flood prevention. Only the Scottish government recognises food and food security as a public good.
So, what will farmers do? Some will try to add value on farm and sell into a niche market – they may make cheese or direct market meat and veg boxes. Big enterprises, in particular arable farms in the southeast, will try to grow bigger and more efficient, producing more for less. And for the mid-sized family farm there is the retirement scheme and the choice to get out of farming altogether…
In all of this, there is one certainty: food prices will increase. Home grown food will become more expensive, because farm inputs (seed, feed, machinery…) will have to be imported or produced here with at least some imported raw materials. And 30 percent of our food is imported from other EU countries anyway.
Playing for time
To somewhat break the impact of the regulatory tidal wave that is heading our way, negotiators have agreed on some last minute fudges. Remember the withdrawal agreement that specifies an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic and border checks between Northern Ireland and the UK? For some food items the checks will now only come into force from April, meat products will be exempt for six months. The cliff edge for organic farmers who annually sell produce worth about £200 million into the EU market has been postponed to December 2021. The EU has agreed to accept the current organic specification of UK produce, it just has to be labelled differently. But once EU organic standards change in 2022, all bets are off.
In the long term, ‘Brexit delivered’ will mean that as many as a third of all British farmers will give up for good. And price rises will hit the poorest the hardest. Good, healthy food has often been unaffordable for low income families. In future, even cheap and highly processed food will cost more. Given the economic fallout from the pandemic, none of us can afford to pay more for unhealthy food. But in the end, the EU dog will wag the ‘sovereign’ UK tail, while we pay for a pipe dream – financially and with our health.
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 or visit her website LondonCowGirl.com
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