Agriculture has been one of the key issues in the build up to the European referendum. Opinions are split amongst farmers, with passionate arguments both for leaving the EU and for voting to remain. The crisis in the farming industry, particularly low dairy and meat prices, means that some farmers feel the uncertainty of Brexit to be too big a risk, while others are so desperate that they feel Brexit must be better than the situation they are in now.
We don’t know what a post-Brexit world would be like, but some of the following issues are causing significant concern for experts.
Farmers in the UK receive £2.5-3 billion a year in EU subsidies. This accounts for more than half of all farm incomes. The UK also has access to a pot of around £4 billion to spend on the wider rural economy between 2014 and 2020. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is a cornerstone of the EU, accounting for about 40% of its budget.
A big sticking point on this issue, however, is that the UK pays £6 billion a year into the CAP, while UK farmers only get £3 billion back. UK farmers also feel it to be unfair that farms in all EU countries receive the same amount, despite the fact UK production and export costs are often higher.
Those in favour of leaving the EU argue that if we weren’t paying for EU membership there would be plenty of money to cover subsidies, and the Leave campaign leaders have pledged to maintain current levels of funding to agriculture until 2020. But there would be serious competition for financial support from all sectors and the Prime Minister, David Cameron, cast doubt over continued support to farming, saying tough choices would have to be made and he couldn’t guarantee future government decisions. The UK Treasury has previously talked about reducing support to farmers and called for reduced CAP payments.
Complicating this part of the debate further, the expectations are that Brexit would lead to a fall in the value of the pound. That would help many UK farmers by making imported food more expensive and making exported food, such as lamb, more competitive. It could also help the UK forestry sector which has struggled in recent decades. But the cost of imported fuel, fertilisers and machinery would rise. But even that is only a small part of the dilemma for many farmers.
Being part of the single market gives the UK access to 500 million consumers. Access to the EU market accounts for 73% of all British food and farming exports, and amounts to more than £11 billion a year.
But if Britain leaves the EU, many farmers are concerned about the potential effect on import and export tariffs. Defra Secretary Liz Truss has said UK farmers may face ‘crippling’ import tariffs in the event of Brexit, in other words countries may impose trade barriers to disadvantage UK food exports.
Some also argue the EU provides the UK with better food security since the CAP ensures stable domestic food supplies at reasonable prices. If the UK left, it would be much more dependent on fluctuating imports.
Others say the EU is obsessed with economic growth and free trade, to the detriment of the environment and local food production. TTIP, a bi-lateral trade agreement between the EU and US which has yet to be finalised, could reduce regulatory barriers to trade for big businesses, resulting in lower food safety restrictions.
But given the UK government has supported TTIP from the start, leaving the EU would not necessarily avoid this issue. Former Defra Secretary Owen Paterson has said, “We are the fifth largest economy in the world. Freed of the EU, we could regalvanise world trade.” But this emphasis on opening up the UK to increased global free trade would not necessarily be a good thing for UK farmers or for future food security.
Environment, antibiotics and pesticides
The EU has vastly improved the UK in terms of environmental standards, particularly for things like air and water pollution, waste and recycling, biodiversity and marine protection. According to Environment Correspondent Ian Johnston, the EU has been “an ever-present ‘big stick’ threatening successive British Governments that have largely failed to make significant progress.” Farming Minister, George Eustice, has recognised the strong influence the EU has had on environmental policy, claiming the UK could have a more ‘flexible’ approach to environmental protection free of “spirit-crushing” Brussels directives. This indicates EU environmental standards would not necessarily be adhered to in the event of Brexit.
Unlike in the UK, the precautionary principle is enshrined in EU treaties. For example, the EU voted in 2013 to restrict the use of neonicotinoid pesticides on certain crops regularly visited by pollinating insects. Neonicotinoids have been linked to the decline of bees. But the UK lobbied against the restrictions and allowed some farmers to use them last year.
The European Commission also led the way on banning the use of growth promoting hormones in beef in the 1980s and antibiotic growth promoters in all farm animals in the 1990s, both against UK government opposition. In March this year MEPs in the European Parliament restated their support for an end to the routine use of antibiotics for disease prevention in healthy animals, a move still not fully supported by the UK government, despite all the publicity the issue of antibiotic resistance has received recently. “And that, sadly, is typical of the British response to these issues” says Richard Young, SFT Policy Director, “My concern is that if we left the EU we wouldn’t just see imports of hormone treated beef coming into the UK, we’d see British farmers being allowed to use these products again and we’d see no meaningful progress on reducing antibiotic use on farms.”
He also says, “what I think is very regrettable is that ex-farming ministers Tim Yeo and Jim Paice made it clear that they want to leave because they don’t like the regulation imposed on farmers. They don’t want neonicotinoids or glyphosate banned despite the mounting evidence against them. For me, Britain would not be taking anywhere near such a good stance on antibiotics, hormones, climate change and a wide range of endocrine disrupting pesticides if it wasn’t for the common sense approach of other European countries, particularly those in Scandinavia which are leading the way to a more enlightened approach, I believe.”
We also have Europe to thank for many animal welfare laws, such as bans on sow stalls, veal crates and barren cages for battery hens. But here the situation is complicated by the fact that some of the most effective lobbying for such changes came from the UK, and, while we have introduced all these changes, some EU countries are still dragging the process of change out as long as possible.
But an independent Britain would be free to drop EU rules that protect farmed animals and would not be subject to future directives on farmed animal rights, though it could be required to comply with them for animals or meat exported to other EU countries.
It is unlikely that an independent Britain would increase animal protections given it is currently pursuing a deregulatory agenda, including a recent attempted move to self-regulation for the poultry industry.
Immigration and workers’ rights
Perhaps the issue featured most prominently in the referendum debate, immigration has been one of the main drivers of the anti-EU campaign. As Patrick Holden, Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust says, “This Brexit bandwagon has brought out all the worst features of our British psyche. There are so many unreconstructed voices and opinions in this country, which look as if they might prevail right now in getting us out, and that’s a real cause for concern.”
This emphasis on immigration is also a major issue for agriculture. According to Farmers Weekly, “Across all industries, EU-born workers account for just 5% of the country’s workforce, but in agriculture it’s 65%, according to Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures – not including seasonal workers.”
Many farmers want to see the re-introduction of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, which allowed migrant labourers to work in the UK on temporary contracts. But this would not be politicay palatable and there is no guarantee that such an agreement would be reached in the event of Brexit. This could have a significantly detrimental impact on farming, particularly in the horticultural sector.
According to Patrick Holden, “The truth is that much of the mission of the SFT is related to perpetuating or improving food security on the ground, and one of the greatest antidotes to immigration is collective international action to de-centralise food production and distribution systems. Making food systems more resilient would enable many displaced people to stay where they are rather than be driven out by hunger or by conflict caused by food shortages.”
Labour conditions and workers’ pay are actually much better in the UK than many EU countries – though not all – which is one reason so many migrants come here to work. But the introduction of the national living wage this year, while a good idea in principle, has caused great concern to farmers who must compete with farmers in some European countries who can undercut them by paying their workers far less. The failure to ensure a level playing field for producers is another reason some farmers want to leave the EU.
What next for the UK?
Despite generally being in favour of remaining in the EU, many organisations such as Friends of the Earth or The Land Workers Alliance also recognise flaws in EU policies and processes. There are calls for reforms of CAP and resistance to TTIP and the move towards greater free trade. Whatever the result on 23rd June, we must call on our own government and on the EU to prioritise the development and support of truly sustainable food and farming systems.