Though iconic in Britains history of agriculture and proponent of the country’s rural economy, the UK’s farming industry is currently facing a two-pronged attack on its operations. In the short term, the uncertain deadline of Brexit looms on the horizon from across the channel. Farmers, who have long received generous subsidies from the government, encouraged by the EU, could see massive changes to the profitability of their operations is there is not a deal on the table by March. Up against the prospective of crashing out of the single market, high tariffs could limit export incomes, while low tariffs cold impede our competitive edge in foreign markets. In the long term, though perhaps not as far away as once thought given the uncharacteristic seasons this year, climate change is set to threaten the very foundations that farming counts on. From disappearing bees to infertile soil, the vague idea of global warming is threatening to reveal itself in a host of unintended consequences to the natural land. Given these close and not-so-far away challenges to the industry, the farming industry will have to prepare and be ready to adapt quickly to whatever future is revealed in Spring 2019, and in the coming months and years as greenhouse gases heat up the planet.
Michael Gove, the environment secretary, tried to offer a solution for both of these challenges when he revealed the belated Agriculture Bill that will come into place after Brexit. Both the House of Lords and many farming organisations had hoped that the bill would offer a caveat of hope for the industry after Brexit. Anxiety about the costs of high or low tariffs and continued support of maintaining the rights of farmers that have been protected by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), sought assurance from last weeks announcement. Yet the much-awaited legislation seemed to focus wholly on environmental protection and left much of the actual farming policies to guesswork.
In Gove’s legislation, the first significant farming policy overhaul since the mid-1960s as the nation began its entry into the European Union, the subsidies provided by the union will be phased out as Britains own are put in place. Replacing the EU’s CAP payments that are based on the amount of land owned, will be payments based on the delivery of environmental benefits such as protecting flood defences, biodiversity, and soil and air quality. The shift towards “environmental land management contracts” acts as a brilliant system for the agricultural sector to merge its operations to be more in keeping with the environment. However, the bill has been condemned by the National Farmers Union and WWF alike for its failure to deliver food-related protections.
The chief executive of Sustain, the advocacy group for agriculture policies that protect the health of humans and the environment, welcomed the premise of the measures, but saw it as a missed opportunity to manage supply-chains and create a ‘fit for purpose food system.’ Similarly, the head of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) saw the policy as undermining the role of food in economic policies. And the vice president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) denounced the plan as ignoring the importance of high standards of food production in delivering environmental benefits, saying “you can’t feed a nation on ego and ideology.”
Such damning criticism of the policy is directed at the avoidance of the legislation to clarify what other protections are in place for food production post-Brexit. Though the bill will help to secure this governments interest in becoming a green economy, it failed spectacularly in assuaging the Brexit angst and could leave farmers, rather than their environment, in a tricky position in the coming months and years. With little mention of the concern with tariffs, farmers have been left without a guideline of how to position themselves favourably in the future, whatever that may look like. To protect livelihoods and see growth in the coming years, those in the agricultural sector should look to both the established and emerging benefits of food production that are coming to light, and be ready to navigate the unclear future of Britain’s agricultural and farming industry.
To secure production in the future, farmers should maintain their high standards of food quality for which the UK’s food production has always been revered. Britain’s high-quality products are sought after for a large proportion of markets, both domestic and abroad, particularly as people become more aware of the behind-the-scenes of food production in other nations. Even though there is a danger of a low tariff trade deal after Brexit allowing our food supplies to be commandeered by cheaper imports from countries with significantly lower food standards than the UK, there has been a significant backlash globally against such low-cost operations. The high profile examples of hormone-treated beef and chlorinated chicken are turning the public into concerned consumers eager to seek out produce of higher standards. Farmers should not be swayed to sacrifice our renowned standards in favour of cheap imports, and protect our legacy for high standards in food production, and preserve our reputation that is dwindling everywhere else.
Even if our produce maintains the same high standards that the UK and EU have set out for food products, it does not mean British exports can easily enter European countries. As a “third country”, the UK will be held to the same stringent checks at customs that other countries are, which will impede the speed at which fresh produce needs to get onto supermarket shelves. To get ahead of the assumed panic at customs after Britains departure, producers of animal products should begin to get their hens in order now, ensure their farm is licensed for export and contract a certified vet available for next year that will be able to sign off on meat and dairy produce for export. Farmers should, however, keep in mind that the estimated increase of 300% veterinary certifications will be required once Britain goes it alone, and over 95% of veterinarians qualified to sign such certificates come from overseas.
Gove’s proposal should be seen as a way to position Britain’s agricultural sector into the cleaner future that much of the public are turning towards. From the mainstream take-up of organic farming to the growing concern of air miles, taking up the government on their suggestion for the industry to clean up will reward farmers by way of profitability and access to this expanding demographic. To make the most of domestic customers, farms should relish in the increase of interest in local produce in either outcome of tariff agreement. In the case of a low tariff situation which could mean an influx of cheap produce from overseas, food producers at home can bank on the growing environmental concerns about the impact of air miles, goods grown and eaten in Britain will be a massive earner for farms. In the case of a high tariff situation, goods coming from abroad will become more expensive, and so home produce will take up much of the deficit created.
Honing in on your local prestige will work even more in your favour if your farm is situated in areas like Wensleydale, Cornwall or Aberdeen. Regional delicacies like place-named cheeses, Cornish pasties and Angus beef are sought after for their quality at home and abroad, so should be capitalised on to secure farming production. The UK has a stunning record of produce with Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status. These regional delicacies that are awarded the name of the place that they are produced in, are recognised for their quality, and foreign and domestic consumers will continue to pay a little extra, even under a high-tariff situation, for these goods.
In the interest of paying a little more for quality, farmers should get involved in the new market economies being bolstered by the internet. Food box services are catching on around the country as people become further disenchanted with supermarkets. In the interest of connecting directly to growers in the country, and cutting out the go-between of food stores, fresh fruit and veg delivery services, that work like expanded milk-man deliveries, are catching on quickly. Contact any of the fast-growing delivery services like Hello Fresh, Riverford, or Farmdrop to have produce delivered straight to customers doors, and be rewarded with far higher percentages than what supermarkets offer.
Most of these new food providers hold their providers up to high ethical stringent standards, so meeting the governments’ environmental policies of natural protection is key to securing a farms position in this new future. Free range and waste-efficient production are highly sought after in these fresh delivery services, so navigating production to one that is more sustainably minded will benefit both farmers and the planet. The market is now shifting on the matter of organic produce as horror stories of pesticides continue to make the headlines. Food producers can charge a higher price, get more from the governments environmental subsidies, and reach higher-paying consumers.
If all else fails, diversify. Farm owners can convert a working farm into a petting zoo, install a cafe or a jungle gym and offset the cost of space lost in retail sales. Carving out 10% of corn crop can allow growers to reap far more than what was lost in produce with ticket sales to a maize maze in the height of summer. While expanding a farms offering beyond food production may seem like a distraction, the uncertain future for the country’s food production and security of the agricultural industry could make it more profitable for farms to expand their offerings outside of solely produce.
In a time of uncertainty and anxiety about what the future holds, the only solution for members of the most affected sectors is to prepare and be ready to adapt to whatever comes their way. The agriculture bill still has many rounds of reading and rewriting before it comes into effect, which could offer a more certain trajectory for the agricultural sector. But for now, positioning farming adroitly into the shifting landscape of agriculture will offer the best odds of waiting out these turbulent times.