Category Archives: Brexit

BREXIT AND THE EQUIVALENCE OF STANDARDS

This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 3rd July 2017

One can hear the first post-election murmurings about British farming policy after Brexit and one can see that it is going to be about appealing to the highly urban British electorate and the interests of, for want of a better term, agri-business.

Britain is going to raise the standard of its foods whilst producing more. It is about protecting the environment and having less regulation. There will be free-trade agreements whilst not joining a race to the bottom on food standards. It will appeal to the masses and protect the interests of a few. It will be a myriad of finely-balanced juxtapositions!

First up is a moratorium on live exports for (presumably) slaughter. This is only a consolidation of the position already attained by the animal rights movement. It will be popular and it will be an easy political points scorer. Will it even have much impact upon the British livestock farmer?

Will the British farmer, nonetheless, insist that such a no-live-export standard is imposed upon countries that sell into the British market? Probably not in the context of a formal trade agreement as compromises will be reached here, there and everywhere and this will be one. Others will be found to facilitate the signing of trade agreements. In simplistic terms, this will mean that the UK market will be open to, for example, hormone-reared beef from the USA. But will it?

There is the assumption that allowing means happening. Such imports may happen but will they be significant? Nowadays to supply a UK supermarket you almost certainly must be quality-assured. It is not a premium attribute, it is a necessity for market entry. It is why Irish farmers have had to implement pan-industry farm assurance. It costs money and delivers little beyond preserving market access, but it is now a necessity. It is a baseline standard imposed by the food supply-chain.

Free trade does not mean the removal of all market differentiation to the point that only the bottom rung of the ladder exists. Ireland itself has sought to move that bottom rung up a few staves. The QA schemes will stand it in good stead post-Brexit, even if that is only about supplying, as of now, the budget ranges of three major UK supermarkets and the food service sector.

I can see that UK farming and food policy will be about raising UK production standards AND allowing greater market access from outside. The raising of UK standards will relate to all sorts of environmental, food security and animal welfare issues and some will be formalized and others not. The latter will be built into more extensive quality-assurance schemes. The formal will be avoided as it will be difficult to negotiate trade deals, EU accepting, with such standards in place. Hence, it will be about ‘informal’ standards, albeit ones that are tacitly supported by the UK government. It will be about allowing the consumer to choose and, through that choice, supply-chain players imposing the standards themselves. Thus, these will fall outside the scope of new trade-agreements.

I doubt if it will be possible to grow more, sell more and export more whilst standards are raised. Typically, higher quality and higher production are not happy bedfellows. The grow more approach may, ultimately, be sacrificed to the raising of environmental standards and the pursuit of farming systems that the wider populace will accept as truly sustainable. And there may already be too much advocacy power aligned against sustainable intensification for the concept to survive consumer scrutiny as food standards become increasingly defined by consumer perception.

To market liberalists free-trade and allowing comparative advantage to function are ideals. They are also ones that can be met by the export more high-quality British produce line. The cost structure of British farms make competing with global producers difficult so British farmers will be encouraged to adopt higher standards and to export premium, highly-traceable, produce to the rest of the World. At the same time, free-traders will be happy to see basic commodities imported; albeit ones that are produced with baseline farm assurance. It is simple trade theory that can be followed if British producers buy into aggressively raising their own standards in a way that this is clearly understood and supported by British consumers and foreign buyers. UK farmers will supply the higher ends of the domestic and export markets, whilst lower-value commodities are imported into Britain to underpin a lower-cost-foods approach towards a part of the UK population.

So where does this leave Ireland? Does the country wish to be a global player and to compete with, say, Argentina? Or does it wish to compete further up the ladder of market standards? And this is not just about in the UK market, it is about elsewhere as the UK farmer and food producer is clearly going to be pointed at the same premium international markets that Ireland aspires to. Ireland’s first response to Brexit should be to fully comprehend what is happening in the UK and to ensure that it has at least an equivalence of some standards, as it now has through its farm assurance schemes.

It is possible that the UK will raise the food standards bar as it devises a food and farming policy that meets a multitude of objectives. These will impact upon Irish farmers and food producers both in their key UK market and elsewhere. Hence, Ireland needs to understand exactly what is happening in the UK food markets and in how farming and food production and its array of related standards is evolving. Ireland will need to innovate but it will be less about factory-produced products and more about how products reflect rising environmental standards and consumer concerns about farming practices. Ireland needs to be researching all aspects of the food chains, but is it? Or is it going to face a market-knowledge shortfall for which its farmers will pay dearly further down the road?

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WILL BREXIT NEED ITS SACRIFICIAL LAMBS?

In these are extraordinary political times, we should ask how British farmers will fare.

To begin at the beginning, why was the election called? Was it to strengthen the hand of the British PM in Brussels? Or was the election to enable the eventual passing of the Brexit buck? Was it to allow the PM to say, ‘tough luck, you voted in the General Election for no deal is better than a bad deal and, de facto, you voted for a no-deal exit from the EU’.

One suspects that behind the scenes the numbers were crunched. There was a suggestion aired that more Tory MPs were needed to counterbalance the hard-Brexit cohort of MPs and that more MPs would allow the PM to deliver a ‘softer’ Brexit. I am cynical enough to suggest the opposite, that the soft-Brexit cohort of MPs was sufficient to stymie a no-deal or very hard Brexit. Hence, the question, was this election about internal party numbers and ensuring a hard or no-deal Brexit? And one that the Conservatives could say was mandated by the election?

Well Thursday revealed that British voters did not buy into the no deal is better than a bad deal position. Although other factors came into play, the ‘progressive’ parties message was that ‘Brexit was Brexit’ but it did not have to mean a hard Brexit. And further, no deal was a bad deal and a bad deal is not an option. Did the electorate just spot that a Tory landslide was an open ticket for soft-Brexit Tory MPs to be trodden underfoot as the hard-Brexit wing of the party stampeded the UK out of the EU. And one should add that UKIP’s ballot-box returns suggest that the electorate has also turned its collective back on a UKIP-driven hard Brexit.

After such shenanigans of politicking and such a debacle of an election, an October election should be called. It may delay Brexit negotiations but so be it. As they keep telling us, Brexit is critical to Britain’s future and the UK needs a coherent negotiating position. It did not have one in the run up to this election. Obviously, the political parties need to work out what they are about and, hence, they need time to present a comprehensive vision of Britain outside the EU.

The sound-bite campaign has been an insult to the intelligence of the electorate. Did we have such because the Tory party already new that its own internal balance was taking the UK towards an extreme, no-deal Brexit? Was ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ just an attempt to offer a palatable slogan behind which to hide the reality? Was the slogan to eventually be followed by ‘well we told you no deal was a possibility and you gave us a mandate to leave the EU with no deal’? Maybe some of the electorate worked this out. And maybe others just got the whiff of a rotting rat under the bonnet of that blue campaign bus.

So where does this leave us now on Sunday morning, the 11th of June? The UK is looking a minority government propped up by Northern Ireland’s DUP. The DUP is pro-Brexit but must deal with Northern Ireland’s unique position. A hard Brexit for a Remain population and a hard border are not options for the DUP. Then we have the Scottish Tories. It is their new 12 MPs who are allowing the Tories to hang on. But Scotland voted to remain and the 12’s presence in Westminster will change the ‘internal’ Tory dynamics. The Scottish Tories are already calling for a wider consensus position over Brexit. That will be a lead balloon for the hard-Brexit Tory cohort.

The June election has not clarified the UK’s position over Brexit, far from it. Was it ever even meant to do so? The UK now needs an election campaign with manifestos that clearly present a post-Brexit vision and how that is going to be delivered. Endlessly repeating ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ did not cut it. Will the election happen, probably not as the Tory party will not want it and neither will the Tory hard-Brexit cohort? After all, it is not their fault that the electorate got it wrong.

In all this it is easy to forget that the CAP is the major operational instrument within the EU and that Brexit will have a massive impact upon the farming sector in the UK. Farming and food will also be heavily impacted by the demise of free movement. Neither have mainstream election issues in such an urban country. There are some hard-Brexit supporters who say that Brexit will create a de-regulated Utopia for British farming; one in which they can just ‘grow more, sell more and export more’ but that ignores the realities of food standards for domestic and international trade and the relatively small scale of British farming. And British farmers will not be able to buy sufficient technology to survive post-Brexit, whatever the technology sales-folk might say.

Brexit will mean Brexit but Brexit will mean a negotiated ‘soft Brexit’. Deals will be reached on trade and even free movement. They will have a strong resemblance to what currently exists but they will be repackaged and relabelled. This will, of course, be hard to palate for the hard-Brexit lobby but so be it. It will be an easier Brexit to reach after an election re-run and the installation of a ‘progressive’ government promoting consensus, but do not hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

So, what will Brexit change? What EU instruments will be ‘sacrificed’ to appease hard-Brexiteers? The answer is farming subsidies and the expensive and overly bureaucratic Common Agricultural Policy. Trade and food standards will be about ‘trade’ but who in an urbanized Britain is really going to fight to maintain Britain’s membership of the CAP? It must be the stand-out sacrificial lamb. Hence, most others will get a soft Brexit whilst British farmers will not!

The above should be no surprise as CAP farming subsidies have not been overwhelmingly popular. A major revamp of farming and food policy will also be an easy sell to a growing ‘progressive’ and predominately-urban political class. And the one thing this election has shown is that it is they who are on the ascendency and politicians will have to take a closer note of their views.

One suspects that there is an alignment between those who want a consensus-based soft-Brexit and those who want a radically changed British food and farming policy. Hence, a new repatriated British policy will be ‘green’ and it will be ‘ethical’. Maybe perversely, there appears to be an acceptance that the farming, food, rural and environmental ‘envelop’ should remain similar in financial magnitude to what has been provided via the CAP. That will, nonetheless, be where the similarities end. A soft-Brexit will return British food and farming policy-making back to the UK, but it will lead to very different conclusions. Probably the only certainty in these uncertain times is that British farming needs to prepare for change, regardless of where UK politics goes over the coming months.

IS IRISH FARMING PREPARED FOR MAJOR CAP REFORM?

Very shortly after I posted to my blog yesterday, I received notification of a blog posting by prof. Alan Matthews; it was about a paper he had co-authored with, among others, prof. Allan Buckwell. The paper can be accessed here 2017_RISE_CAP_Full_Report. It contains a lot of sound thinking around a complex subject. I have known the latter Allan for some 30 years so that is no great surprise. I may have liked to see some stronger linkages to some on-the-ground farming issues, but maybe I am expecting too much, comprehending the machinations of the CAP itself is complex enough. I would suggest that everyone involved with providing leadership to Irish farming sits down and reads it, thoroughly.

My immediate thought upon browsing the paper was to ask the question, ‘is any country less equipped than Ireland to deal with the consequences of major CAP reform?’. It was not a case of asking ‘is Ireland ready for CAP reform’ or such like, my instinctive reaction was to use the phrase ‘is any country less equipped’! For a farming industry that spends so much on funding its farming leadership, that is a shocking indictment of the situation. Ireland wants to engage in the debate over CAP reform but its aim appears to be to maintain the status quo. From my perspective, it cannot, apparently, countenance the idea that the European tax payer may want to see a reduction in the CAP budget or a transference of money away from direct farming support. I think it is fair to say that the Irish approach to CAP reform is to ask for more of the same but with the bureaucratic burden reformed and reduced. With Britain leaving it even wants to see the EU tax payer fill the ‘black hole’ in the CAP’s finances that Britain will leave behind.

Sadly, I have long since concluded that most of Irish farming’s leadership lives in a parallel universe. The reason is probably due to the overly political nature of Irish farmer representation. Just how do you get elected to its leadership if you have a tough message to sell? It ends up with a ‘popularized’ approach and the telling of voters, for that is who the organisations’ membership are, what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. It is little different from modern mainstream politics. CAP reform provides a clear case in point; the leadership’s position is that we must insist upon the continued transfer of EU/Irish taxpayer funds to Irish farmers, period. I recently described it as a Dickensian approach, ‘bowl-in-hand, more please Sir’, to farming leadership. At every turn and in response to every crisis, it is about asking others for help.

Has a serious dependency culture been allowed to develop over the years? I find it difficult to conclude otherwise. It is a situation that precludes addressing the possibility that the other 26 countries of the EU may decide it is time to seriously restructure the CAP, how it functions and what its purpose is. Apparently, there are some strong professional voices calling for it to happen [as per the aforementioned paper]. Now Irish farming may punch well above its weight in EU agricultural lobbying terms and I wonder if any other EU farming community commits so much expenditure to lobbying in Brussels, but Ireland is only one in 27 and its population and its representative numbers a little over one percent of the EU total. Realistically, Irish farmers should expect to get what they are going to get and planning for a status quo, post 2020, may not be such a good idea.

I am not at all surprised that I am writing this about potential CAP reform. I have only been in Ireland a relatively short time but a common theme I have identified is that farming here lurches from one crisis to another. When those crises are market-driven, it is no great surprise as it is difficult to imagine that anyone has ever developed a post-farm-gate processing and exporting system that is so unsuited to the farming structure that serves it. Worse, such has even been embedded in its sacrosanct national agri-food policies. I can only think of one Irish farming leader who is willing to highlight and question this anomaly. The rest, apparently, prefer to see the tax payer pick up the shortfall in farming incomes that occur because it is nigh on impossible for the market to deliver a decent income to Ireland’s small-scale family farms. To that objective, the system is designed to fail.

This post seems to be becoming about the telling the brutal realities of life. Thankfully I have no intention of seeking election to Ireland’s farming leadership. And therein lies the problem, we are facing some of the most complex issues to ever face farmers; be they related to climate change, food security, health and nutrition, consumer demands for high animal welfare, taxpayer demands for farmers to deliver both food and public services… the list goes on, but where is the engagement in these issues by Irish farming’s leadership? Is it happening?

The debate around these many issues is now beginning to happen in the UK; it is one consequence of Brexit and the re-nationalization of food and farming policy back to London and, probably, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. The array of interested lobby groups in the UK is just too strong for the debate not to occur and my advice to UK farming groups is to engage with them to develop a thoroughly modern food, farming, environmental, rural policy. And reading the paper I mentioned at the beginning, the EU-27 will be, almost in parallel, actively debating CAP reform. But will Ireland really be engaged in the process or will a too entrenched, driven-by-domestic-farming-politics, position leave the CAP to be reformed by others? If so, it will have consequences and I do not doubt that they will be consequences that Irish farming is unprepared for. It will be yet another crisis for Irish farmers and one that, through a lack of engagement at home and a leadership unwilling to suggest and promote change, they will be far less than prepared for?

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.