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“And now for the hard part” – Food and Farming after Brexit

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In 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 take effect.

Brexit 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.

From 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 them.

Well, 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.

As 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’.

Why 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.

Which 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.

The 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%.

And 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.

But 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.

This 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


The Slow Food blog welcomes contributions on the topics of Food, Farming and Agriculture. The contents may not entirely match the views of Slow Food, but reflect the journeys of the authors. To write for us please click here

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