WILL BREXIT USHER IN A GREEN REVOLUTION IN THE UK?

From what one has read, many within the UK’s farming community voted to leave the EU. They were probably aware that they were risking their CAP-originating payments but the idea that an EU exit would massively reduce farming’s bureaucratic burden was just too attractive.

So support payment levels will be guaranteed through to 2020. That is hardly a boon given the long-term nature of farming. It also gives the Government a three-year window to develop new policy and new payment schemes. However, one does wonder with Ms Leadsom at the helm of Defra, just how high the post-2020 support payments will be.

There is an expectation of a chill wind coming in from South America when Brexit happens. Trade barriers will probably come down as trade agreements eventually fall into place but wise heads in the UK who are already pointing out that the UK farming / food focus must be on developing the Little Red Tractor and protected geographic indicators as a means of protecting UK producers in their home market. For the informed consumer it will be more about traceability, origin and how it is produced and that bodes well for a farming community that will still be producing 60% or so of the food for what may likely remain a growing population; assuming that the immigrants choose to stay. It is not so much about having access to a market; it is about making a profit supplying that market [the perennial problem that Ireland has with the UK].

It is, nevertheless, not going to be an easy road ahead. Direct payments will probably fall but will domestic food market prices rise sufficiently to compensate? Alternatively, will farmers be able to expand and/or become more efficient to make up for open-market-price shortfalls? Will deregulation and bureaucratic simplification provide the cost savings required? It is very much a myriad of ‘ifs’.

What is becoming less of an ‘if’ is that the green/environmental lobby sees Brexit as THE opportunity to drive through major farming/food policy changes in the UK. The UK was already a leader in the EU when it came to environmental land management schemes and does one expect this to change post-Brexit given that the UK has numerous environmental organisations and many have massive membership? Driving through change is likely to be easier for the latter lobby in the UK than it would have been in a 28-member EU. Brexit is probably their opportunity of a lifetime.

Given that policy statements re. post-Brexit farming/food/environmental/landscape etc. are already appearing, it appears that this lobby group is well aware of their opportunity. They also have the advantage that many issues relating to, for example, Climate Change are simultaneously coming to the fore. In the coming weeks a report if to be published on species loss from British farmland and it will make waves. It is forwarded by Sir David Attenborough; should anyone doubt about the weight of personality that the environmental lobby can bring to the table. One is also reading about the dire state of many soils in the UK so the issues go beyond biodiversity loss; they will encompass food security via that most fundamental of agricultural assets, the soil.

My personal view is that the farming community needs to work with these organisations. They do not have the weight to fight against them in the long run. Just name a personality on the farm lobby side who is a household name [cast members of the Archers do not count]. The farming lobby may believe that they have ‘science’ on their side and they may also believe that they have the moral authority of ‘we must feed the world’ but, ultimately, will they have the political clout to gainsay the green and environmental lobbies? And there is also the ultimate issue in a free-market economy, these lobbyists are also the very same consumers that the farming community will need to sell to if they are to survive economically in an environment where you are either close to your local consumer or you get trodden underfoot by low-cost producer from far afield.

Brexit is changing the farming and food playing field in a way that has probably not happened since 1947. From a farming and food policy perspective it is a one-off; not least because, unlike 1947, social media exists to empower the individual. It may end up as a battle ground between two opposing views but it should not be allowed to do so. The farming community needs to work out how to protect itself, not from those at home, but from global free-trade. This trade will in all likelihood happen but it needs to be countered by UK farmers and food producers having [transparent] standards [that are recognized by their consumers] as being way over and above those used elsewhere. And these standards need to be developed in partnership with those organisations in the UK that have concerns for the numerous issues that can be loosely termed ‘environmental’. Right now, the UK farmer needs to avoid fighting with the very people who should become their new best friends. A revolution in itself.

I suspect that in the longer-term this will also be the more financially rewarding route for the farming community to follow. The alternative that will be proposed will be to run upon the technological treadmill even faster than now so as to reduce production costs through efficiency gains. Looking back over 50 years of such, does it really have a great track record when it comes to enhancing farm incomes? The farming community should be asking whether it is likely to do so post-Brexit. It may then also discover that a revolution in thinking is needed.

It is strange to think that in the end Brexit may not deliver the Utopian, de-regulated farming and food system for the British farmer to operate in. Far from it. It may actually end up being even more regulated than it was when EU regulations were tempered by the difficulties associated with getting 28 states to agree upon what they should be. It is a case of be careful what you wish for.

What may be stranger still is that farmers actually demand regulation so as to create the product differentiation [what else is Little Red Tractor?] that will allow them to withstand the impact of cheap food imports. It may even reach the extent that the regulatory frameworks are not imposed by government but by the farmers, working together, themselves. They may well be what their customers demand of them in exchange for paying a premium and/or buying local.

It is also possible that regulatory frameworks will be required if farmers wish to avail themselves of support payments from the UK government / tax payer; not least because those payments are more likely to come from environmental [in a broad sense] payments than direct support for food production. I am not sure if this is the conclusion that the Brexit campaigners expected.

There is a common factor in the two paragraphs above and that is that the premium-paying, issues-aware consumer and the politically-savvy, issues-aware tax-payer are one and the same. Are UK farmers the jam in the sandwich on this one? If they want to receive government funds and/or premium payments for their products will they have to dance a jig for those who are, de facto, one and the same? It is not a strategically strong position to be in.

So where does this leave Irish farmers given that so many Irish food exporters go to the UK. Will it be a straight choice between competing head-on with major producer-exporters like the South Americans or will it be about producing food to the same, post-Brexit, standards that many UK farmers will aspire to as they attempt to protect themselves within their own market. Will Ireland need to be working to a Little Red Tractor ++ standard? I believe that they will need to, not least because by doing so they will also be creating the premium products that they need to access the top of the international food markets per se. And those are currently occupied by the French and Italians [often] with their designated-origin [a regulatory framework] premium products.

Brexit will likely change the food and farming landscapes and it may be in a way that was not immediately obvious when the UK electorate went to the polls. It will mean change and it is important for the Irish farming and food sectors to closely watch what happens as the UK, freed up from the influences of Brussels and the CAP, may enact a green-driven revolution.

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