Why we should all care about the betrayal of British farmers

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Farmers will be better off if we vote to leave the EU, they said. We’d decide our own rural strategy, abolish the hated basic payment system, pay farmers more, keep and maybe even enhance farmers’ subsidies just as Switzerland, Norway and Iceland do. And we’d get rid of those pesky regulations — all while improving the environment by spending all that money we’re going to save by not paying EU dues any more, on conservation and environmental protection, like flood defences. They ploughed all of these promises into a glossy leaflet, with a smiling photo of George Eustice on the front, and another of Owen ‘Badger’ Paterson on the flip-side. ‘They’ being VoteLeave, the official pro-Brexit campaign.

Come referendum day, Vote Leave harvested the votes of farmers in roughly the same proportion as the rest of the population: 53 per cent voted Leave and 47 per cent Remain, according to various post-ref surveys. Only Welsh farmers voted by majority to Remain, unlike the Welsh population as a whole. Yet many people cannot forgive the farmers and act as if every last one of them voted to leave. Go onto Twitter, tweet something positive about farming and you’ll get trolled. They voted for it. They deserve what they get. They should own it.

We all have to eat. Difficult to do that without farmers producing our food. Surely we want the food that ends up on our plate and our families’ plates – especially those of our children – to be the best possible quality? ‘Quality’ doesn’t mean expensive, but rather healthy — although it is true that it is more expensive to produce healthy food than it is unhealthy food.

MPs like Jacob Rees-Mogg extoll the virtue of ‘free trade’ as meaning cheaper food and shoes for the poor. What he neglects to mention is that cheaper food means food produced to lower standards, whether that means the use of toxic pesticides banned in our country, or treating animals in ways that our laws do not envisage, or even expressly forbid. Furthermore, low-welfare food is usually less healthy and tariffs aren’t the only determinant of price, so it may not be much cheaper for the consumer anyway. A recent Lords’ Report found that what the poorest in our society need is healthy food at an affordable price.

Since December 2019, a Vote Leave government has been in charge of the UK. How are they doing delivering on their promises? Let’s begin with the umbrella promise that farmers would be better off. Rather than that being the case, it was reported as early as 2017 that DEFRA was expecting Brexit to result in up to 25 per cent of farms, particularly small farms, going bust. Oh dear. As the type of deal the government has sought to negotiate has been pared back over time, and the amount of friction to be introduced into trade with the EU has increased, this prognosis has become even worse. Now it is said 25-50 per cent of farms could go bust. Not great for food security in the midst of a pandemic, is it?

There are two alternatives. The first is no-deal, which Johnson told us during his leadership campaign way back in 2019 was a million-to-one shot. Now he is jauntily referring to it as an Australia-style deal, because we Brits like Australia. It would be more accurate to call it the Afghan-minus deal, as Australia’s access to the single market is worse than Afghanistan’s, which is why they’re busy negotiating a comprehensive full trade deal with the EU.

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The second alternative is Johnson’s thin deal, which will be barely different to no-deal. However, it will avoid the worst of the tariffs, which could be the difference between survival and bankruptcy for some farmers. No doubt it will be sold as a major triumph, although it will be a burnt-out banger compared to the Rolls Royce of a deal we had when we were EU members.

Are we expected to trust Boris Johnson after the stunt he pulled on his ‘oven-ready’ withdrawal agreement in which he conceded an internal UK border down the Irish Sea, then pretended this was news to him. He hadn’t read the small print, and the poor sausage had misunderstood what he was signing up to. Hmm. Either way, British farming is set to be hit —hard. Additional Red tape consisting of new declarations and certifications, sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks, and other non-tariff barriers will make exporting more challenging and a lot more costly.

But wait —wasn’t Brexit supposed to mean less red tape? Sorry. They lied about that. Surely, we’re on safer ground with reduced regulation? Not if we want high food, animal welfare, food production, countryside conservation and environmental standards to continue, we’re not —and we Brits are almost unanimous in wanting all that. It seems the tiny percentage who do not are either free trade zealots at some dodgy think tank, or Tory MPs under the thumb of self-styled super-forecaster, Dominic Cummings, who has got the public mood on food and farm animals, as on so many other things, wrong.

Government speaks of regulation as if it’s a bad thing, but not all regulation is bad. Some of it literally saves lives. Stricter regulation could have saved the lives lost in Grenfell Tower fire; our food safety and animal welfare standards mean we only have one-tenth of the food-poisoning cases the US does.

We (naively?) hope that new environmental regulation will help us to reverse the damage we have inflicted on the planet so that we may pass it on to our descendants in a better state than we found it. We must get into the habit of demanding a cost-benefit analysis from MPs when government boasts about cutting regulation. I doubt many of us would agree with Jacob Rees-Mogg’s assessment that what’s good enough for India in the sphere of environmental regulation is good enough for us. (Bhopal, anyone?).

The promises to pay farmers as much as they received under the basic payment scheme (BPS), as well as to pay higher subsidies, have rung hollow. In practice, farmers are to be weaned off BPS over a three-year period, then thrown to the mercy of the market. The new environmental land management scheme (ELMS) does not replace BPS as it is open to any landowner, not just farmers, and does not seek to ensure an adequate income, but only to reward them for specific outcomes. It is essentially an evolution of countryside stewardship schemes. Hence the increase in the percentage of farms expected to go bust post-Brexit, since for many farmers, growing our food is a loss-making activity.

What about all that money they promised to spend on environmental conservation and protection? It was suggested that some of the money previously sent to Brussels to pay our EU dues could be used for this purpose, but it has been spent several times over already. There is no Brexit dividend. Brexit dues were less than one per cent of public finances, so they were never going to go far. Indeed, Brexit has so far cost us more than all the dues we’ve paid to the EU put together. This is because Brexit was like giving up £10 to gain £1.

Yes, we paid a little under £10bn a year to the EU, but that £10bn yielded ten-times as much through savings on red tape due to frictionless trade, the synergy of sharing the cost of 40 or more regulatory agencies across 28 countries and joint-projects like Galileo, Horizon2020 and pooled security and policing tools. Now we don’t pay the £10bn, but we also don’t get the £100bn in benefits. New customs formalities alone are eating up the money we used to spend on paying EU dues.

Brexit is a massive scam, and now our food, animal welfare and environmental standards are under threat by this all-powerful government. What can we do about it? The Agriculture Bill is about to be sent back to the Commons, and the Lords have once again amended it to enshrine our standards in law (which is after all a Tory manifesto pledge) and to strengthen the Trade and Agriculture Commission. There is a huge coalition of organisations, from the National Union of Farmers to the RSPCA, to the National Trust, to Which?, to Sustain, and many others, as well as celebrities (Jamie Oliver, Joe Wicks and Emma Kennedy) and the Daily Mail campaigning to save our standards. The first thing you could do, then, is pick an organization you like and find out what they’re up to — many of them have an email template that you can send to your MP, for example.

Photo courtesy of Save British Farming

Next, you could check out Save British Farming. This organisation that was set up specifically to combat the betrayal of British farmers by this government, and it has grown rapidly. The founder, Wiltshire farmer Liz Webster, is now a go-to expert for comment on farming-related developments in politics. They hold protests around the country and whether you bring a tractor or not, you are always welcome to join the convoy.

The latest protest was at Marlborough, in the constituency of MP Danny Kruger. As well as being the son of British Bake-off judge Prue Leith, a prominent Brexiter who has joined the fight to save our standards, he is a close confidant of Boris Johnson. He favours letting low-welfare food into the country, but slapping a higher tariff on it. This is unacceptable. Best to keep it out altogether. Letting sub-standard food in only outsources poor farming and production practices, as western brands found to their cost when their overseas manufacturers exploited children in sweat-shops to make fashionable gear. Furthermore, the consumer is unlikely to have adequate information in all cases about the origin of food, especially in an institutional setting, such as schools, hospitals and restaurants.

Save British Farming ’s website has many resources, including expert reports on the public health implications of low welfare food, animal welfare, and the environment. There are blogs examining the arguments made by MPs in the most recent debate on the Agriculture Bill, with answers to them, and memes you can download or banners you can order. We are what we eat, so this campaign affects all of us. If you can’t join the campaign for the sake of our farmers, do it for your own sake.