It’s been three years since Britain left the EU and it’s time to take stock.

Let’s start with the good news. At the end of January, the government finally provided details on ELMs[1], the Environmental Land Management scheme that is to provide ‘public money for public goods’ and help farmers compensate for the loss of direct payments from Brussels. The 101-page document lists the payment rates for 280 individual measures farmers can take. They range from £10.38 for establishing a skylark plot or £22 p/ha for soil assessments, to £537 for creating fenland out of lowland peat. Some payment schemes will open this spring, others will only be rolled out later in this year or next year.

This is where the good news end.

Until Britain left the EU, basic payments often accounted for 90% of farm income. The wet and hilly regions of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are ideal for growing grass and raising beef cattle and sheep. Such extensive agricultural systems are good for the environment, but not for making money. That’s why for so many farmers the farm’s profitability depended on direct payments from the EU. But because such farms already are low input and environmentally friendly, farmers don’t stand much chance to get alternative compensation through ELMs. Those who stand to benefit most are farmers who until now have done little or nothing to increase biodiversity or soil fertility, but instead went hell for leather to increase yields. And even the paid for measures will make such farms at best a little more environmentally friendly: “Individual actions on their own won’t achieve our climate and nature targets. (…) There remains the need for join-up between actions to avoid a piecemeal approach[2]”, says Martin Lines, the chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network.

Brexit, trade and more hoops to jump through

Brexit would result in numerous new trade agreements that would deliver huge opportunities for export – that was the promise ‘Brexiters’ like Boris Johnson made when Britain left the EU. Since then, Britain has signed trade agreements with New Zealand and Australia. Both treaties came under fire from agricultural organisations such as the farmer association NFU. The main criticism: animal welfare standards in both countries are lower than in Britain. The agreement disadvantages British farmers and the domestic market is likely to be flooded with cheap beef and lamb meat, in particular if and when demand in China decreases. Even George Eustice, the minister at the helm of DEFRA when the agreements were signed, said in a speech in November 2022 that the treaty with Australia is “not actually a very good deal”[3]. He continued: “Overall the truth of the matter is that the UK gave away far too much for far too little in return.”

The agreement with New Zealand isn’t good for British famers either. In 2022, imports of New Zealand lamb were up by 11%[4], the sales’ price in supermarkets was on average 30% lower than that for fresh British lamb.

EU countries remain Britain’s most important trading partners, but non-tariff trade barriers such as phytosanitary checks and documentation requirements have made the import and export of agricultural goods and food significantly more expensive and time consuming. Researchers at the London School of Economics have calculated that during the first two Brexit years, 2020 and 2021, British consumers had to spend an additional £6 bn. on food[5]. They say Brexit alone is responsible for year on year price increases of 3%. Before Brexit, 77% of all food imports came from EU countries. Once the UK had left the EU, companies in EU countries did not hesitate to pass on the additional administrative costs they incurred – or simply stop selling to UK buyers.

Food safety and animal welfare at risk

Things might get worse. Britain is still on course to have a ‘bonfire of EU-law’ by the end of the year[6]. 4,000 pieces of EU legislation will be automatically revoked by 31st December unless they are actively preserved by parliament. 1,700 of these EU regulations deal with food safety, animal welfare and the environment. Staff at DEFRA is stretched as it is, there is little hope that the EU laws in question will be properly assessed. Ministers were asking for a “blank cheque” to get rid of regulations without consultation, Orla Delargy from Sustain told Farmers Weekly[7]. “Putting our food and farming standards at such risk is foolhardy and an unwelcome distraction from dealing with the problems our farmers and wider food system are facing”.

Lots of pain for little gain

In food, margins are tight and in Britain, it is supermarkets which pocket the biggest share of profits, leaving next to nothing for farmers. That was the result of a widely reported study by Sustain. “Farmers hold a disproportionately high amount of the risk when it comes to producing food, but receive a disproportionately low amount of the reward, reflecting their relative weakness in the supply chain,” Vicki Hird, the head of Sustain, told Farmers Weekly[8].

Why do supermarkets pay farmers so little? Because “they are also facing additional costs and are working incredibly hard to limit price increases for consumers during a cost-of-living crisis where many people are struggling to afford the essentials”, Andrew Opie, the director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium told Farmers Weekly.

Circular firing squad

Farmers, too, are facing increased costs: for energy, for feed, for fertilizer, for transport, for diesel to operate machinery, for cold storage and for labour – which brings us back to Brexit and the fact that for this year the government has made 40,000 seasonal worker visas available and increased the minimum wage they need to be paid. The horticultural sector alone needs 70,000 to 90,000 workers. Add to that the number of workers needed in the dairy sector and in the fishing industry; slaughter facilities still haven’t found enough butchers, and while Britain was short of vets even before Brexit, the situation now is just downright terrible: not only did many vets from European countries return home, now even more vets are needed because of the increased Brexit paperwork such as phytosanitary certificates for exports.

In the meantime, farmers are running out of options. While production costs are continuing to increase, they are unlikely to get higher prices for their produce. Increasing mechanisation in order to save labour costs is not always possible, and, in any case, it would need investment which most cannot afford. Which leaves two choices: scaling back production or getting out of farming altogether.

According to Farmers Weekly, the National Pig Association believes that 80% of pig farms could go out of business in the next 12 months if the situation does not improve.

A survey by British Grower Association just found that more than a third of orders for new apple and pear trees have been scrapped because ‘the sums just don’t add up’: costs have risen by 23%, farmgate prices rose by 0.8%. Fruit and vegetable growers are therefore significantly reducing the acreage they plant, big enterprises are shifting production abroad.

Egg and chicken producers are in a similar situation. Since last summer, many producers have not fully restocked their barns, which led to an egg shortage before Christmas.

Just how serious the situation is by now became clear at the end of November in a speech by the former head of the secret service, MI5, Lady Manningham-Buller: “I argue that food is part of our national security, including those ‘essential workers’ who grow and harvest it, and produce crops, vegetables, fruit, and even wine.”[9] She said food production in the UK had been taken for granted for too long and now constituted a weakness in the nation’s security. “The doubling of fertiliser prices, soaring energy costs, shortages of seasonal workers, plus apprehension about trade deals that may favour places where farming standards are low and imported supplies liable to disruption – all are impacting the farmers that produce our food and we urgently need policy to address this.”

Except that no such policy is forthcoming. Instead the government banks on cheap food imports to keep consumer prices low – no matter what the consequences are for British farmers – and for all our physical wellbeing and health.

It’s a sad post-Brexit reality, in particular as Britain could be moving towards a better, more local and sustainable food system by rewarding diversified farms with long rotations, keeping animals on grass and transitioning to organic. Farmers could produce healthier, more nutritious food which would help to take pressure of the NHS. Good food is medicine. Which we are not likely to get any time soon.

[1] ELMs is only available to farmers in England, as devolved nations, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are responsible for their respective agricultural policies, but how much money is available is still decided in Westminster

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/jan/26/details-long-awaited-farming-subsidies-overhaul-england-revealed

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/nov/14/flagship-post-brexit-australia-trade-deal-not-actually-very-good-george-eustice

[4] https://www.fwi.co.uk/business/markets-and-trends/meat-prices/frozen-nz-lamb-brings-jitters-with-trade-back-15

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/dec/01/brexit-added-nearly-6bn-to-uk-food-bills-in-two-years-research-finds

[6] dto.

[7] Farmers Weekly, 10.2.2023, page 7

[8] https://www.fwi.co.uk/business/markets-and-trends/farmer-frustration-at-low-returns-from-supermarkets

[9] https://www.fwi.co.uk/news/farm-policy/former-mi5-boss-says-urgent-action-needed-on-food-security

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 Images used with kind consent @M.Kunz

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