Can British Agriculture survive outside the EU? Of course it could although anyone would have struggled to have made this case thirty years ago, cocooned as our farmers were then by very high intervention prices for unlimited quantities of many commodities, high tariffs to keep out imports and export restitutions to dump our surpluses overseas. All of this was combined with a very light regulatory touch.
If you chat to farmers on a shooting trailer or a pub about leaving the EU, you will always find one who will moan, “I can’t make a profit without my Single Farm Payment” he will say. However, that man is making an assumption. He is assuming that the EU is the only institution in the world that subsidises agriculture. He is wrong, the USA has its Counter Cyclical Program, Canada has its Crop Price Insurance Scheme and even Japan has The Basic Law combined with the Basic Plan. Indeed, New Zealand, which abolished all farm subsidies in 1984, is very much the exception to the rule. It is therefore very likely that post-Brexit, UK agriculture will still be subsidised although unfortunately, we cannot revert to the Deficiency Payment system we had before the EU as it is against those WTO rules to provide subsidies linked to production!
Of course, protection of agriculture can be overdone. In this country, there was a substantial battle over the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws in the 1840s, but the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is an anachronism in the 21st Century.
In the period following the end of the Second World War, there were chronic food shortages in parts of Europe and the CAP was devised to ensure that this could not happen again. However, like many facets of the EU project, it has been badly managed. In the 1970s, too much food was produced, leading to “butter mountains” and “wine lakes.” This was followed by the era of “set-aside” where farmers were paid for doing nothing whatsoever with their land. Some recipients of CAP funds are not even farmers. Meanwhile, the combination of subsidies and tariffs on imported food has caused food prices across the EU to be far higher than in other developed nations.
No discussion about EU agriculture would be complete without reference to regulation. We are drowned in it. For example: the Nitrates Directive. We used to have our own maximum level of 100 milligrams per litre of water. There were no health scares at this level. When the EU took over they halved the level to 50. The difference is critical. The NFU commissioned a study to discover what measures we would need to take to remain under 50. The answer came back that half of East Anglia would need to be left as ungrazed set-aside plus a fair slice of the East Midlands.
The Pesticides Directive has removing pesticides from our shelves, making it difficult or impossible to grow certain minority crops that will now need to be imported. Another piece of legislation relating to small tractors featured 37 closely typed pages of script on how to test their roll bars. We can thrive without that! Every day, at least 1000 sheep which die in the fields are transported up to 100 miles to be roasted at 900 degrees centigrade because of EU regulation. There are millions of acres on which these animals could be safely buried.
The EU is also obsessed with global warming and this has affected its agricultural policy. Livestock farmers are being told that their sheep and cattle are producing too much methane. They must therefore be fed less grass, hay and silage but more cereals and concentrates! The madness doesn’t end here. The resurrection of set-aside a few years back was a “climate change” measure rather than any attempt to control supply. The EU’s logic was that if 7% of the EU is not farmed properly, then the world’s weather will improve!
These are just a few of the impediments faced by UK farmers because of the EU’s agricultural policy. It must be apparent to anyone reading this that we could do much better as an independent country.
The transitional period leading up to and immediately following Brexit will be crucial, as we will need to ensure that food exports and imports to and from the EU can continue smoothly. At the moment, British farmers presently export 40% of their lamb to the EU. As an independent country outside the single market without an additional agreement, all this meat would be subject to a “sheep meat” tariff of £2,689 per tonne. The price to British farmers would collapse. But the lamb would not even get as far as customs until it had satisfied the “sanitary and phytosanitary” health controls which apply to all food products. The shippers would also have to appoint official importers on the other side – firms or individuals resident in the EU – to be responsible to the authorities for conformity to EU standards and, of course, the payment of inspection charges and tariff.
As far as imports are concerned, some Brexit supporters are urging the government to abolish all import tariffs. While this would keep us fed, it would put virtually all our hill farmers out of business as they would not be able to compete on price if suddenly on Brexit day, cheap lamb was to flood the supermarket shelves.
Even if some UK farmers may well be in for a challenging time if Brexit is handled badly, in the longer term, it will enable us to implement substantial and beneficial reforms to the agricultural sector. Take the issue of food security. We currently import over half of the food and animal feed consumed in the country, an increasingly crowded island whose population is already worryingly high. Can we be confident that food supplies from abroad will always be so readily available?
There are two potentially huge risks. One is a dramatic loss of supply after a few years due to, say, a drought in the Southern hemisphere. The other is the real risk of terrorism. All UK food imports are handled by a mere handful of deep water ports and Heathrow Airport. It would not be that difficult for a terrorist group to disrupt our food supply. Brexit gives us the chance of a reappraisal of how best to feed the country’s population. Our farmers are resourceful people and with suitable help from the government, we could definitely produce a higher percentage of our own food. Indeed, Brexit could provide the opportunity for a real renaissance of the UK agricultural sector while the freedom to set our own tariffs will allow us to reduce the costs of the foodstuffs we do need to import. In short, a well-managed Brexit will be a benefit to producer and consumer alike.
(With thanks to Stuart Agnew MEP. This article is based on an original piece he wrote for us before the Brexit vote in June 2016,)
(For further information on the origins of the Common Agricultural Policy, this article by our Chairman, Edward Spalton, may be of interest.)
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