Brexit and farming

Meme by Anthea Bareham

Four years on from Brexit, I’m taking a look at how various industries have been affected by the realities of our decision to leave the EU. The first in the series looked at ‘How fishing was gutted by Brexit’, and this time I’m going to look at how British farming has fared.

Before I begin, I want to address the myth that farmers voted for Brexit (and therefore deserve everything that’s come their way, which is always the subtext to that claim). I have written about this previously, so won’t go into details here, but basically, farmers voted very much in line with their demographic: older, male, rural voters. Many of the ‘Vote Leave’ banners on farmland were down to the landowners, and often not the farmers themselves. And quite frankly, no one deserves to have their livelihoods trashed, however they voted!

Many farmers felt the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) favoured very large farms and so they hoped that leaving the EU would give Britain the chance to set its own subsidies, that would work for British farmers. Unfortunately, post-Brexit, the government appears to have failed to help our farmers, leading to tractor protests in Wales, Kent, and the 100-strong go-slow protest through Westminster at the end of March 2024.

Realising it would be almost “entirely bad news”, the government ‘buried’ a report on how hill farmers are likely to be affected when the former EU subsidies come to an end.

The post-Brexit farming payment scheme, aimed at encouraging good environmental practices, has had the unintended consequence of making it more profitable to take fields out of food production and turn them into wildflower meadows or fill them with trees. Farmers have also accused ministers of breaking their pledge on farming investments post-Brexit, claiming there’s been a £227m underspend of the £2.4bn they were promised.

Loss of freedom of movement has hit farming disproportionately, as agriculture relies on seasonal workers to harvest different crops at different times of the year, as well as to butcher and process farm animals. Before Brexit, almost all fruit, vegetable and flower pickers were from the EU, and it took the government almost a year to respond to pleas from the farming industry to issue seasonal worker visas. But that was often too little too late, resulting in farmers planting fewer crops, and rearing fewer animals going forwards. With EU citizens no longer being interested in coming here, only a fraction of the visas were applied for.

The new trade deals signed with New Zealand and Australia do nothing to benefit farmers. Two years after the Australia deal was signed, it was reported that not a single British farmer has exported any beef to Australia due to the onerous red tape imposed by the Australians. Meanwhile, however, Australian farmers have exported 1,700 tonnes of beef to the UK. That beef is reared in conditions and using methods which are not legal in this country, thereby undercutting British farmers who are required to adhere to higher standards.

Former environment minister George Eustice, a man who helped secure the deal, subsequently admitted in parliament that it was “not actually a very good deal for the UK”. Thanks, George: many of us tried to point this out BEFORE we signed everything away to the Australians while gaining very little in return!

In terms of our relationship with Europe, Brexit has made exporting harder, with increased red tape, costs, and time required to ship. The loss of freedom of movement has also led to fewer vets, at a time when British meat requires additional veterinary checks to comply with EU regulations. Brexit has also made it more expensive to import the necessary feeds, fertilisers and other inputs required for farming.

The dairy industry has seen a fall in exports across all the sector post-Brexit, and in damning written evidence to a parliamentary committee in July 2023, Dairy UK stated “the trade policy pursued by the government has opened up the UK dairy sector to the possibility of greater import challenges than corresponding increases in export opportunities”.

In an effort to tackle one of the many difficulties around the border issue on the island of Ireland, from October 2024 all British produce to be sold in the UK will need to be labelled “not for EU”. This has caused an outcry from farmers, highlighting not only the increased costs associated with this new labelling regime, but also polling that suggested nearly 20 per cent of British consumers won’t buy produce labelled that way.

Farming campaigners say “government agricultural policy and its Environmental Land Management farm payments scheme, together with weak trade deals, ‘non-existent’ import controls and misleading labelling, have all served to undermine farming businesses.”

Brexit appears to have produced very little in the way of benefit to farmers; just increased costs, barriers, lower quality competitors (who can produce more cheaply), and heartache. I don’t care whether half of them voted for Brexit – we need British farming to supply our most basic requirement: food.

If Covid and the war in Ukraine have taught us anything, it should be that we need to be MORE self-reliant for our core requirements, not less: the government should start supporting farmers to produce the food we need.