Environment and Rural Affairs

Brexit: A disaster or an opportunity for the world’s oldest industry?

The most important vote in a lifetime was cast just over four years ago, yet people’s views of the European Union largely remain the same. Tabitha Anthony writes about the relationship between Brexit and the impact it'll have on Britain's agricultural industry.

June 2016 brought with it the summer solstice, a frenzy of haymaking activity and the biggest political change in a generation. The most important vote in a lifetime was cast just over four years ago, yet people’s views of the European Union largely remain the same. Tabitha Anthony writes about why farmer’s voted for Brexit and the impact it’ll have on Britain’s agricultural industry.

There is no way of telling exactly how farmers voted in the referendum. However, a Farmers Weekly poll from April 2016 found that 58% intended to vote Leave, whereas 31% favoured Remain. The results of this survey were very surprising, especially as many agricultural unions, levy boards and societies urged farmers to support remaining within the EU. 

The Remain campaign painted farmers as one of the biggest losers if Brexit was to go ahead, due to the loss of subsidies that they receive through the Common Agricultural Policy. Trade was another hugely worrying factor. What they failed to mention was that the money for the CAP scheme originates from member states’ taxes. In 2016, us Brits paid in £6 billion and only received £3.8 billion back. This means that we provided our European counterparts with a £2.2 billion advantage, allowing them to be more competitive with our great British farming industry.  

This financial aid doesn’t come alone, it is wrapped up in red tape and regulations. The EU works off the premise that one size fits all farmers, farming systems and sectors across the continent, resulting in the same rules for everyone. The farming landscape in Britain alone is very diverse, from the loughs of Northern Ireland, to the rugged mountains of Scotland, down to the green Shires of England and across to the lush rolling Welsh valleys. Each British farm is unique and uses slightly different methods of practice. Multiply this across the continent and you’ll see how diverse the farming practices are across Europe.  How can farmers herding reindeer at -40 °C in the Arctic Circle in Finland have the same regulations as those working at 40°C in the lemon groves of Sicily? It’s both completely bizarre and impractical! In the run up to the referendum, George Eustice, now Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said “EU regulations make life hard for the UK’s farmers” illustrating how unfathomable this ruling is. 

Over 90% of the exported lamb that is produced here in Wales and the rest of the UK, ends up on European shelves. So why, when the vote came along, did an estimated half of British farmers choose to Leave? It’s like shooting yourself in the foot when you look at the statistics.  Well, the main reason was that many farmers were tired of the status quo. They saw the referendum as a chance for radical change, something that really gripped the attention of the younger generation of farmers, who were just at the start of their agricultural journey. 

Many farmers are hopeful that policies and rules will now be UK specific, suiting our farming practices, climate and topography of our country. They also hope that the British Government will protect the fantastic welfare standards that us as British farmers adhere to, all whilst also protecting the health of our nation and our environment. 

Moving forward, it is imperative that the Government implement regulations when negotiating trade deals that ensure any produce imported into the country has to meet exactly the same standards of production as us British produce on every level. Welsh and British farmers produce food to some of the highest environmental and welfare standards in the world, why should we be expected to import anything less than the best?

It would be gravely worrying to allow imported food from abroad if it was produced using chemicals that are banned in this country. If the UK Government is concerned enough to ban the use of a chemical/drug in this country, as it could be detrimental to our nation’s health, then is it not hypocritical to import it from another country? The threat to consumers’ health is still there.

We are in living in very uncertain times, making planning ahead extremely difficult. Farmers have to plan well in advance before they see any financial return. Putting bulls out with cows two years before that calf can breed itself, putting rams out with ewes in the October ready for lambs to be born the following March or sowing wheat in September in order to be harvested in August to name just a few examples. We cannot prepare for market trends or trade deals if we do not know what to expect. What would happen if we were to have a surplus of perishable produce due to having no markets to send it to? If this were to happen there would undoubtedly be a catastrophic knock on effect to farming businesses and the rural sector as a whole. 

The recent food shortages that we experienced up and down the country at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, illustrates our need to become more self-sufficient. At present, we would run out of food by August 6 if we only ate home-grown, British food from January 1. This is just not good enough. We need to import less food going forward, thus benefiting the British economy greatly, reducing food miles and our carbon footprint as well as ensuring that the food we eat is produced to our world-renowned standards. 

Many of my friends and family are next generation, active farmers who are hugely frustrated with the current situation they find themselves in. They all feel as though they are in limbo, not knowing exactly how Brexit will impact on their businesses and not having a detailed agricultural policy from the Government. They are yet to find out if they will continue to receive a form of aid or on what basis it will be awarded if it does remain, it could potentially be obtained from very different practices than what it historically has been granted for. There are countless unknowns, making navigating your future even more precarious. 

There may be many uncertainties in life, but one thing is for sure, we all need to eat. We all need a farmer. 

Tabitha Anthony is a fifth generation farmer’s daughter from the South Wales Valleys and is a member of the Welsh Conservatives Youth Shadow Cabinet.

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