Brexit and British agriculture (a bit long but a window into the Brexit muddle)

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy provides a total of £3bn per year – more than half of all farm income – which on average supplies 50-80% of a British farmer’s income. The EU also protects its farmers with tariffs on agricultural imports from outside the bloc of 12.2%, rising to as much as 51% on lamb and 74% on milk. Were Britain’s food market opened up to cheap imports from, say,the US, many farmers would struggle to survive.

British agriculture employs 466,000, only 1.5% of the UK workforce, but provides 61% of Britain’s food. It also supplies Britain’s food and drink industry, the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, employing more than three million people. Furthermore, 70% of Britain’s land is farmed; farmers are the main stewards of the beautiful countryside.

The EU is the largest export market for British farming: it receives more than 60% of agri-food exports – and 90% of British beef exports. EU countries are also the source of 70% of the UK’s food imports. If Britain and the EU were to fail to conclude a free-trade deal, and British farmers were suddenly faced with high tariffs for their products, it would have a devastating effect. A free-trade deal, with zero tariffs on agricultural goods, may be agreed. However, if Britain leaves EU customs union, new inspections are likely to be introduced, which would pose a lot of difficulties for perishable products.

At the moment Common Agricultural Policy subsidies are calculated partly on hectares farmed, and partly tied to environmental improvements. But the system is controversial since the largest payments are paid out to the biggest landowners, including the Queen and large agri-businesses. The system also drives up the price of land, making it hard for new farmers to enter the market and encouraging farmers to farm every acre they possibly can.

So although the total level of subsidy is guaranteed until 2022, after Brexit in 2019 the largest single payments will be capped, and subsidies will be used instead to “incentivise methods of farming that create new habitats for wildlife, increase biodiversity, reduce flood risk, better mitigate climate change and improve air quality by reducing agricultural emissions”. Public money will be paid to upland sheep farmers for “protecting drystone walls and other iconic aspects of our heritage”, and used to improve public access to farmland.

This sounds very environmental, but farmers are panicking, desperate for subsidies to remain in place. Profit margins in farming are thin: one report last year suggested that 90% of farms would be bankrupted if single farm payments were removed. The government is accused of muddled thinking: it wants to turn Britain into a paradise for wildlife and improve productivity in British farming; and nonetheless wants to use new world trade deals to get lower food prices for consumers, while simultaneously maintaining Britain’s high food and animal welfare standards. How can this be done without decimating the industry?

Meanwhile, an estimated 80,000 seasonal workers are needed every year to pick Britain’s fruit, vegetable and flower crops; 75% of these workers come from Romania and Bulgaria, the rest from other eastern EU nations. Every Christmas season the poultry industry needs 13,000 workers to process turkeys and 58% of these are foreign. Of the vets in Britain’s abattoirs, 85% are EU nationals. In total, about one in ten agricultural workers are foreign migrants.

The Tory government is in its usual muddle (what’s new? Ed).In principle it recognises the need for a new seasonal agricultural workers scheme, similar to the one that existed before mass EU migration began. But if it agreed this it would go against the wishes of Brexit voters who want to rid the country of pesky foreigners. Meanwhile, farmers, have to plan ahead and fulfil contracts with their suppliers. By 2017, the number of seasonal workers had already dropped heavily – EU migrants were discouraged by the Brexit vote and the fall of sterling against the euro. As a result, large amounts of fruit and vegetables rotted in the fields and orchards. (An ediited version of an article in The Week, 17 March 2018)

This illustrates the pathetic inability of the Brexit blowhards to think through what they were pushing through. Nobody bothered to get into the weeds and work out answers to the swirl of problems Brexit would bring. “Stupid” and “irresponsible”? To be sure. But it illustrates what can happen when prejudice and emotion guides affairs of State. It isn’t even true that the EU is the origin of all the much-criticised regulations; many are home- grown interpretations of overall EU policy, arranged by British bureaucrats. Pluck out the mote in your own eye before setting about the motes of others!

Why is the above on Epicurus.Today? Because Brexit offends the Epicurean principles of peace of mind and moderation, not to mention equality and fairness to the greatest number. It is unwise to jump into the unknown without a parachute.

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