UK Agriculture faces huge challenges from Brexit. Why aren’t the Leavers listening?

Just before Parliament was dissolved for the general election, the House of Lords published a report into the serious concerns about Brexit in the agricultural sector, which employs almost half a million people in the UK and adds around £10 billion to the economy. In the same week, I received this from a leading company in the agricultural sector (Gleadell):

“If a hard Brexit turns out to be the order of the day, and World Trade Organisation rules are applied to UK agri-products traded with the EU and the rest of the world, then imports and exports of grain, non-grain feed ingredients and associated products will become harder and markets more expensive to access.”

“The implementation of tariffs and quotas will mean not only potentially higher import and export costs, but also the likelihood of increased difficulty in being able to access other markets or being able to secure long-standing essential supplies.”

This assessment is not just true for grains and feedstuff.  It is true for the wider agricultural sector and beyond. Leaving the EU – especially the hard Brexit that the government wants which includes leaving both the single market and the customs union – would mean that we leave our agricultural sector:

  • facing barriers – possibly tariffs, but certainly red tape and bureaucratic costs – when selling in our main export market.
  • facing regulatory problems, as our rules on sanitary standards, packaging, labelling, etc. diverge from the rest of Europe (unless we decided to follow those rules anyway even though we will no longer have a say on them).
  • facing uncertainty about farmers’ income: will the UK government replace all the subsidies currently paid by the EU?
  • facing extra competition from America and other continents, as our government desperately seeks new trade deals, conceding access to our market for agricultural goods in exchange for access to their markets for our financial services.
  • finding it more difficult to recruit extra labour at harvest time as new restrictions are put in place on free movement.

The House of Lords report reflects very similar concerns. It recognises that withdrawing from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which plays a fundamental role in regulating and supporting UK agriculture and upon which many farmers in the UK rely for funding to sustain their businesses, is extremely challenging. Wider rural communities also benefit from EU development programmes. UK farmers will need time and clarity from Government to allow them to adapt to any changes in the regulatory or funding system, if we go ahead with Brexit. The government has only offered limited assurances that subsidies will continue, funded by UK taxpayers.

The EU is the UK’s single largest trading partner in agri-food products – about 80% of the UK’s agricultural exports go to the EU. Directly in line with the Gleadell’s concerns, the Lords’ report recognises that post-Brexit, the UK will have to develop its own tariff schedules and negotiate new trading relations with the EU and the wider world. UK farmers risk facing high tariffs and significant non-tariff barriers when exporting, and competition from lower-priced imports domestically. Both tariff and non-tariff barriers could disrupt integrated supply chains between the UK and the EU, and pose a particular challenge for the agri-food sector in Northern Ireland.

Furthermore, the UK’s agri-food sector relies extensively on other EU countries for both permanent and seasonal labour. This labour ranges across all skill levels. Without access to EU labour, both the agricultural sector and food manufacturers will face severe difficulties. This is an immediate challenge, which the Government must address urgently as the UK approaches withdrawal. Theresa May’s continued pursuit of the ideological goal to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands – despite never having achieved anything like that in the past seven years – will create serious difficulties for the agricultural industry and have a damaging effect on this sector. Like many of the Brexit-at-any-cost policies advocated by the right wing of her party, the genuine concerns of experts in a very important sector are being ignored, with potentially disastrous consequences.

As the election campaign has continued, there seems to be increasing concern among individual farmers and farming organisations that these serious challenges are not being satisfactorily addressed. Interviewing several farmers, Times journalists have discovered that they fear for their future outside of the EU for the reasons identified by above. Behind the slogans of the advocates of Brexit, there seems to be little serious policy, thought or preparation for how this sector can survive outside of the single market and customs union.

Whatever the outcome of the election, the new government will have to start listening to these concerns in order to maintain the livelihoods of tens of thousands of agricultural workers, to protect the reliability and quality of our food supplies, and to ensure sustained management of our rural landscape.

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4 Comments

  1. The Times needs to have headlines exposing and explaining exactly what our farmers are facing, if the public had all these problems put to them before the referendum I think the outcome would have been different.

    • Indeed – and like so many other aspects of our lives. However, the mantra by Mr Gove that we don’t believe experts, was particularly true of the farming community despite the NFU’s warnings

  2. I think that for many people there is such a disconnect between their daily lives and the promises of the politicians that their vote for Leave was generally a gut-reaction to the present consequences of austerity. However, there is no substitute for practical experience and I expect that they will soon be seeing some practical results of their actions.

  3. Leavers aren’t listening because they never do. They listen only to what they choose to hear and only as long as it ties in with their xenophobia. Leavers aren’t interested in agriculture, whether the cost of food goes up, that are only interested in keeping ‘nasty foreigners’ out of the UK. Anyone ‘not us’ is perceived as a threat. It’s always been thus, and, as the daughter of a soldier who had the misfortune to be sent back to the UK and had to attend a civilian school, when we were evacuated from Aden, I experienced this first hand as I was called vile racial names by the local kids because I was as brown as a berry after 2 years spent in Aden, I was called ‘Pikey’, ‘Nazi’ (my mother was German born) ‘wog’. I had things stolen from me, was jabbed with a compass, had my belongings broken, I was pinched and shoved and the teachers could not be bothered with us army kids.
    What we were, was bewildered kids, who had experienced seeing people shot, having grenade drill in assembly, travelling to school on an armoured bus with armed soldiers in a land rover front and back,worried about our Dads who had to stay behind in a war zone and wrap things up, living in a strange town among civilians instead of in married quarters on a camp, going to a forces school, but what the locals saw was ‘not us’, and they reacted with suspicion , aggression and unfriendliness.
    That sort of xenophobia is taught to children by parents and perpetuated by peers and it was a fact back in 1967 and it’s a fact still.
    The British are an island race with an island mentality, always has been and always will be. The British don’t play nice with anyone. We are just too tribal. People from one town, consider those from another town ‘not us’ and the youth fight over ‘territory’. People are born and grow up, marry, have kids all within a couple of miles of where their parents and grandparents did the same and consider the locality ‘theirs’ and anyone from a different area is ‘alien’ ergo dangerous and bad.
    I can’t see this insular attitude ever changing among the masses, most of whom are not very bright, consider education and intelligence to be a bad thing, to be derided,

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