Dear John-2

British farmers need to know what support will replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, what markets may open or close to them and what standards might change and bring unfair competition.

shropshire-farmIn November last year you wrote that you were busy persuading local Shropshire farmers of the dangers of leaving the EU and asked whether I’d changed my mind about Brexit. We’re leaving this week, in principle anyway. In view of this, how are you (and they, the local farmers) feeling about plans for the future? [1]

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has provided farms with much, and in some cases most, of their income. The Government’s plan is to replace this with an Environmental Land Management System (ELMS) to encourage farmers to help meet its ‘green’ goals. The BBC’s Countryfile program (Sunday 26 Jan.) asked Dartmoor farmers how they felt about this and most were concerned that not much progress had been made in the last six months so they still didn’t know what they should be planning for.

So what has delayed DEFRA, apart from typical Whitehall sloth (and let’s not pretend the Berlaymont is better)? Until a week before Christmas it was by no means sure we would be leaving, but then again the civil service was supposedly told to get on with preparations regardless of Parliament’s paralysis and the possibility of no deal. Theresa Villiers (a lawyer, not a farmer of course) is the Minister in charge; she told Countryfile that transitional payments would be made for up to seven years, which sounds pretty helpful.

In my reply [2] last year I didn’t point you to the example of New Zealand [3] which abandoned its massive farming subsidies completely in the 1980s. That has led to a more flourishing industry. Maybe our circumstances are not comparable, certainly agriculture is a far, far smaller proportion of our economy. Then again, it may show that farmers will seek to maximise their subsidy rather than what they do best and where they can find the best rewards.

This is the other big issue, where are farmers going to sell their produce if trade arrangements restrict their European markets? What will happen if UK farmers are exposed to world competition, including from countries with lower standards and cheaper labour? Remember, of course, that we were much more self-sufficient in food under Commonwealth Preference rules than we have become under CAP, when New Zealand certainly didn’t offer a ‘level playing field’ and other members had very undeveloped economies.

ChickenThe public has been told to worry about a trade deal with America that the Yanks might insist includes their right to export ‘chlorinated chicken’. It sounds awful though we wash our bagged salads in the same solution, make our water safe with the same chemical and you and I, as frequent swimmers, wash ourselves in chlorine every time we go to the pool. It is interesting that USA standards insist that minced beef must be free of all e.coli bacteria which is virtually impossible under EU standards, and therefore ours. Their answer is to ‘wash’ it with chlorine! Whose standards are higher? Will our beef be excluded under a prospective UK-US trade deal or will we have to bring our beef up to their standards?

Of course that’s not the main issue. Chicken and beef consumer prices in the US are higher than our own supermarkets charge but probably not enough for ours to compete over there after transport costs. It seems likely that this is all deliberately exaggerated for political rather than practical purposes.

New Zealand was abandoned in the 1970s, with no transition arrangements, when the UK had been by far its biggest export market. Agriculture is that country’s largest industry and today the average Kiwi citizen is considerably richer than the average Briton. We cannot be sure what the future holds but we can’t assume it will be bleak for farmers, or for most of us.

Nick

[1] https://www.fwi.co.uk/news/analysis-grass-roots-farmers-plan-vote-leave-eu-referendum

[2] Dear John

[3] Remains of the Fray (final paragraph)

Farmers 1

Farmers 2

 


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