IS BREXIT REALLY THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM?

The 29th March 2017 has arrived and gone and the United Kingdom has officially filed for divorce. It is a momentous day for the British, the European Union and, most of all, given their one foot firmly planted in either camp, the Irish. One of my earliest posts on Brexit was about rural Ireland becoming collateral damage within the Brexit process and my view has not changed; no other region and population will be affected like rural Ireland and its farmers.

One of the great tragedies of Brexit is that we all have better things to be doing. We have climate change to not just consider but to act upon. That is a great global challenge for us all but hidden away is one that myself and, apparently, a few others consider to be a greater threat to the future of humanity, that of soil degradation. The two are, of course, linked in that soil degradation has released vast amounts of previously sunk carbon into the atmosphere. When it comes to global food security, the devastation of our soils will have a more immediate effect than climate change!

And if that was not enough, marching upon us is the declining efficacy of our food-production technologies. Our artificial solutions, developed to grow food during a ‘green revolution’ that has run for half a century, are losing ground to Mother Nature on all fronts. Mankind still does not get it; we are the lesser of the two. Mother Nature was here for millennia before us and will be after we have left a globe that we currently occupy for a milli-second of history. The length of our tenure will now depend on just how soon we realize that we can only ever play second fiddle in Earth’s orchestra; even if our human ego’s like to think otherwise.

In the context of these far greater issues, Brexit is a political distraction. Both parties will eventually leave the negotiating table and life will carry on. True, some will suffer the economic consequences and all that goes with them, but Brexit is just that, a distraction.

For Ireland, Brexit is something that it could well do without. I have been living in Ireland long enough to realize that, for Ireland’s farming and food sectors, if it was not Brexit, it would have been something else that would have exposed the country’s reluctance to change and adapt its approach to suit the realities of its own farming structure. Ireland’s farming and food industry has long since been dysfunctional but it cannot change until it recognizes its own dysfunctionality. And Brexit only provides another opportunity for its group-thinking, agri-food elite to retain its bottom-up, head-in-the-sand posture. If ever there is a Margaret Thatcher, ‘this Lady is not for turning’ award, I do hope the first recipient is the Irish agri-food establishment; there can be no more worthy a winner.

The above said, there is an opportunity lurking within Brexit. The United Kingdom has the chance to develop its own food and farming policy. It is its first such chance since the passing of the 1947 Agricultural Act. It is only since 1973 that the UK has been a party to the monolith that is the Common Agricultural Policy. And a ‘monolith’ is a fair description. It is an overly-bureaucratic, means-to-its-own-ends institution that needs fundamental reform. I believe that it needs to be renationalized to allow individual governments to make their own policy within strategic guidelines laid down by Brussels. The CAP’s one-size-fits-all approach was never going to suit a Union that rapidly expanded from 15 to 28 countries. A direct consequence of Brussels’ desire for an ever-deeper union is Brexit and the UK’s exit from the EU stage.

As perverse as it may sound, a consequence of Brexit providing the British with the freedom to develop its own new food and farming policy may be that the UK can provide a blue-print for a reforming CAP to follow. Whether the British can get it right and, if they do, that the egos lurking in Brussels could accept and recognize such is, of course, a different matter. I for one will not be holding my breath in anticipation of either.

For those of us from the farming and food industry who are not familiar with the true nature of those who dwell across the Irish Sea, they are a highly-urbanized population that are many generations away from the land. That is not a criticism of them, just a fact. And it is one that anyone endeavouring to propose a new framework for food and farming policy needs to be aware of. The British consumer-taxpayer will have a massive say in what comes after the UK leaves the CAP; not least because there is a vast array of lobby groups who are intent on them doing so.

Interestingly for Ireland, the post-Brexit food and farming policy debate offers a unique opportunity to observe and understand its primary market. Many in Ireland may consider that the country is a major global agri-food player but it is not; it is a localized player that ‘exports’ because of a political boundary with its nearest, very close, neighbour. Take away the export figures for the UK [and its near EU neighbours] and Ireland is not a player on the global stage. It is a reality that it needs to grasp; not least so it can focus its attention on dealing with the implications of Brexit for its major indigenous industry. Irish global-market talk is another distraction.

Earlier this week I watched a debate on RTE on veganism. The knowledge on display was limited. It made one realize that for Irish farmers to be a vegan is akin to having acquired some rare, exotic tropical disease that, thankfully, will never gain a foothold in Ireland. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. The point I made to Patrick Kent, President of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association [maybe Ireland’s only free-thinking Irish farming leader], afterwards was that the vegan movement could well be only the beginning when it comes to consumer demands for a whole new approach to how we produce food from animals. One ignores them at their peril.

Others may not be as evangelical as the vegan movement but there is a vast array of organisations that are lining up to have their say on post-Brexit British food and farming policy, only a part of which will relate to enhancing farm animal welfare. If these organisations get their way [and they will to a large degree] they will fundamentally change the food landscape within the United Kingdom. They will also fundamentally change the market upon which Ireland is so heavily dependent. And if one has the vision to see it, that may not be such a bad thing for the smaller-scale, Irish family farm. The caveat is, of course, the phrase, ‘if one has the vision’.

So yes, Brexit is one elephant in the room, but it is only a baby amongst a herd of elephants. It may well, nevertheless, be the catalyst for a major and urgently needed reform of how we produce food. We must REALLY consider climate change and food security; the latter itself being multifarious in its nature. And we must take full account of the views, or should one say the demands, of the consumer-taxpayer. Ignoring any of the aforementioned is not an option.

We are entering a period of necessary revolution when it comes to food and farming policy and it is one that we, the farming community, must embrace; not least because such a revolution may offer farmers their first chance in decades to regain some control over a food system that has long-since left them as poorly paid and over worked. It is, nonetheless, an opportunity that can only be taken if there is a revolutionary vision around. Revolution is about change and that apparently, sadly, comes very hard in Irish farming circles. That, however, must be a story for another day whereas today has another significance; albeit it is really no more than just the day after one small island nation decided to leave a union of European others.

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