BY: Navomee Ponnamperuma
PEJOURNAL – In the UK, until the recent pandemic, Brexit was the most common topic of conversation. From immigration to sovereignty, it was a heavily contested topic with extensive media coverage. Nevertheless, amidst the chatter, one aspect of Brexit appeared amiss despite its economic and social value.
British farming represents one of the UK’s largest manufacturing sectors, contributing an estimate of over £120 billion to the national economy. It provides a secure food system in the UK and generates employment in rural areas, as current figures show over 4 million people employed in this sector.
Prior to Brexit, British farming was regulated under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the largest single item of expenditure in the EU budget. The departure from the CAP has been heralded as triumph among Brexiteers, who viewed the policy as, yet another constraint put in place by Brussels, benefiting Europe at the expense of the British. Sources of tension included the different approaches to farm support (price guarantees vs. payments), the fact that the UK’s contribution is not proportionate to its gains. Moving away from EU subsidies was seen as a way to gain more autonomy in the decision-making process, enabling the government and its farmers to prioritize sustainable trade policies.
Furthermore, to “shake off the shadow of the CAP”, the government has promised additional funding to replace the lost revenue. It aims to introduce a tiered system of reduction, as part of the planned phase-out of the current European direct subsidy system. For example, farms receiving financial aid of an amount above £150,000 will see a 25% reduction in direct payment, until the end of the phase out period in 2027. Environment and Food Secretary, Michael Gove has hailed the proposal as “an opportunity to deliver a Green Brexit”, rewarding farmers who actively combat climate change as opposed to basing their wages on the amount of land owned.
On paper, these proposals seem far more benefiting than the current EU subsidizing system. Nonetheless, after Gove’s announcement for a greener future in a post-Brexit society, a leaked document revealed that the Environment Secretary had promised to find ways of reducing or removing farm inspections, arguably, a move reflecting the government’s wider plan to provide unrestricted access to products from countries where food and welfare standards are significantly lower.
Furthermore, in pursuing a lenient approach to food quality regulations, the UK faces the possibility of a trade embargo on certain of its products as it would not be on the EU’s list of approved exporters; regardless of the government’s departure from the CAP, Britain is still obliged to uphold EU standards to continue trading with the bloc.
A report published by the National Farmers’ Union of England and Wales (NFU) in 2016, estimates that 60-65% of British exports go to the EU, while 70% of imports originate from EU countries. Leaving the European market with a no-deal Brexit situation would force farmers to pay tariff on products that were formerly exempt of these costs as part of the EU single market.
For instance, in 2017 the market for British lamb exported to the EU was valued around £389 million, but under a no-deal Brexit, the farmers will face tariff rates amounting to 45-50%. This is a cause for concern for many producers as a hike in prices could result in European states switching to suppliers in other countries. In fact, higher food prices could also spell trouble at home.
British farmers will have to compete with agricultural exporters from countries such as New Zealand and Australia, who will be able to tap into the British market with less restrictions thanks to bilateral agreements signed to expand Britain’s engagement in the global economy.
In the second reading of the UK Agriculture Bill in June, one of the key criticisms was the apparent lack of regulations to protect UK farmers from lower quality imports. The much talked about US-UK trade deal has been a thorny issue for British farmers, and the public alike. The primary concern is that opening up the market to US products could lower levels of food safety whilst out competing local farmers. In fact, Batters, the NFU President, warns that if the government chooses to pursue such a trade deal, it would represent ‘a betrayal of British farmers and the values [they] stand for’.
She points out that some of the food practices in the US have been banned in the UK as early as the 1980s. To provide free access to products such chlorine-washed chicken would be an affront to the environmental and animal welfare standards practiced vigorously by British farmers. Given the NFU does not plan to lower its standards, British farmers will bear the same costs in production but will now have to compete with low-quality food imports sold at a cheaper price. Consumers will then be faced with the dilemma of choosing between quality and price. In the longer run, this will lead to sustainably produced food becoming more and more inaccessible to the ordinary working Briton.
Another troubling factor to consider under a no-deal, is labor shortage. The uncertainty in the job market for EU workers has led to seasonal workers seeking employment in neighboring countries such as Germany and Denmark. Thanks to the EU’s freedom of movement rules, it is estimated that around 70,000-80,000 migrant workers are brought in annually to help British farms stay afloat; the NFU approximates 99% of seasonal workers are provided by EU nationals.
Yet, under the UK’s new immigration points-based system, only skilled workers from the EU would be eligible to work, thus excluding seasonal workers. Following protests from agencies and unions such as the NFU, an amendment has been proposed; a special agricultural workers’ scheme that will offer 2,500 visas per year. However, given previous data on the number of migrant workers in British farms, it is clear the scheme offers no real relief to farmers, who in the past, have been almost entirely dependent on migrant workers during the harvest season.
While the obvious solution would be to employ British workers, it is rare to find those who are willing to work in this sector. A chief executive of Concordia, a recruitment company supplying workers for British farms, noted that they had “virtually zero Brits apply”, and the few that try their hand in the fruit and vegetable harvest, “literally don’t last a week.” The problem of labor has become only exacerbated with the current pandemic. British farmers are now forced to face the harsh consequences of a dramatically reduced migrant workforce that will only continue to dwindle in a post-Brexit society.
However, that is not to say that the British government has stood idly amidst the growing concerns of its agricultural sector. Along with farming agencies, it has set up campaigns such as “Pick for Britain” and “Feed the Nation” to encourage its citizens to help out on farms across the country. Unsurprisingly, despite initial interest, the number of people committing to the job has been very low, highlighting once again the reluctance of Britons to engage in time-consuming labor for a minimum wage.
It is thus, time for the UK to re-evaluate their policies. It should view the current problems caused by COVID, as only foreshadowing the fate that lies for many British farmers in the wake of a no-Brexit deal. The recent move by the International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, to establish a Trade and Agricultural Commission has been applauded by many in the farming sector, who had previously expressed concerns about post-Brexit food quality. Yet, this represents only a fraction of the work needed to protect the farming industry.
The labor shortages that are caused today due to COVID travel restrictions will only augment under a no-deal Brexit. Farmers, who for decades have relied on the free movement of workers within the EU to employ cheap labor from countries such as Romania and Poland, will suddenly find themselves having to rethink production routines to avoid food being left to rot even before it hits the supermarket shelves.
To put it briefly, environmental and food quality regulations should not be sacrificed in order to secure a departure from the European Union in the shortest possible timeframe. The alternative could end up putting at risk the very future of British farming.