Act: Inspiration

Pessimism, Optimism, and Opportunity beyond Brexit

October 4, 2017

Richard Spalding contemplates where our agriculture is heading, as the UK exits the EU.

The EU Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier, suggested recently that he could hear the clock ticking as he waited for material evidence that the UK Government was making progress in articulating its position in relation to a number of red lines. Only then might talks on future trade relations begin. Whether or not this is all part of positioning in relation to the process of negotiation is as yet unclear. One side waiting for the other to show its hand prior to counter-punching where appropriate is the hallmark of negotiating a successful outcome from complex negotiations. A power play is clearly working its way out, even in the early days. I start here because of the imperative I see of placing agriculture and horticulture back at the decision-making table in the same way that the UK Government did in the years during and after the Second World War and leading up to the 1947 Agriculture Act.

I am in no position to understand contemporary high level Brexit debate, argument and ultimately the compromises that will need to be made, but I do want to spend a little time drawing together some thoughts, reflections and evidence on the place of farming and gardening in feeding us into the future as our government negotiates on our behalf in these central areas of policy making.

It is fascinating to look back to the early 1970s as the UK was completing its negotiations to enter the European Economic Community. Those discussions would lead to the UK taking its place in the Common Agricultural Policy centred on the delivery of infrastructures, policies and programmes to support agricultural production and bring these islands into a modern age of Western European co-operation. My own experiences of being in agricultural college at this time were full of double digging and soil sterilisation by the ‘hortics’; whilst the ‘agrics’ frolicked with their newfound riches guaranteed by the CAP. There was certainly a sense of optimism that set the ‘production production, production’ agenda into motion in parts of the farming community. Horticulture felt like a poor economic relation as the global food system began to assert its power as more and more fruit and veg was flown into country. Many traditional locations for horticultural production such as the Vale of Evesham, the peat mosses of Lancashire and the glasshouses of parts of the Sussex coast began to suffer from international competition to be replaced in part by the ‘los plasticos’ foodscapes of the northern strip of the Mediterranean. We could clearly see big agriculture and increasingly big horticulture in the ascendency and yet there was a still a questioning of their impact on landscape, nature, food quality and rural communities. However, there was never any questioning on what was right for soil preparation from Mr Best, our double digging tutor in college. The answer was simple in his mind, but we never thought (or dared) to question him. His military training gave him control over the plots we cultivated. We, unthinkingly, followed his maxim to cultivate the bottom spit of the trench and his order never to crouch down whilst digging was unfailingly heeded. This was muscular horticulture ruling the roost. Looking back on this and the practice of steam sterilisation of glasshouse soils in preparation for tomatoes, I see what seems to have been a profound misuse and abuse of our soils. Our knowledge of soil processes and the role of soil organisms have grown hugely in recent years to suggest that we should be working with soil processes rather than seeing ourselves as dominant over them.

My own views and knowledge on these matters have been influenced to a significant extent recently by the trilogy of books from Professor David Montgomery. In his 2007 ‘Dirt-the Erosion of Civilisations’ he charts a 10,000-year-old story of global soil loss through mismanagement. 2016 saw the joint publication (with Anne Bikle’) of ‘The Hidden Half of Nature – the microbial roots of life and health’, where the complex and mutually beneficial relationships between soil biology and ultimately human health are explored. This was quickly followed in 2017 by ‘Growing a Revolution-bringing our soil back to life’ which charts a number of practical projects which have resulted in growing more food, creating employment and getting more carbon back into our soils. There is lots of hope here that if only we can base our future food policies on the soils under our feet to deliver future agri-culture and horti-culture (the hyphens are deliberate), then perhaps we have a chance to show the wisdoms of humanity and not just its consistent follies in relation to the crucial soil resource.

Fast forward to Friday 24th June 2016. We awoke to the news that the UK voters had cast their votes to leave the European Union by a majority of 51.89% to a remain vote of 48.11%. What happens next for UK agriculture and horticulture? Who negotiates on behalf of these two economic sectors? What kinds of work will these sectors do and who will do that work? What will our landscapes look like? At what scale will farming and gardening operate? What kind of agricultural and horticultural policies will emerge? What opportunities for consultation will be provided within the process of shaping those policies? Many of these questions did not start with the Brexit decision, but rather have been emerging for some years as academics, NGOs and others began to question the capacity of current food and farming strategies to feed us all. Let’s just explore some of that questioning in light of published material. There is much evidence to suggest that a ‘business as usual’ approach to food and farming is in need of profound challenge if we are to feed ourselves, at the same time as securing essential environmental and ecological systems for planetary health. I bring just a selection of recent writing and thinking on these crucial matters that have passed over my desk during the last few years. Much of the evidence I have found is deeply critical of current models of intensive, oil based agricultural production.

Future Farming foreseen

The 2013 report from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development entitled ‘Wake up Before it is too Late’ argues the need for a fundamental transformation and questioning of the assumptions that have driven food, agricultural and trade policy in recent decades. The increasingly visible and compelling voices of the agroecological movement as articulated in the 2013 report ‘Mainstreaming Agroecology: implications for global food and farming systems’ articulates agroecological methods as having the potential and capacity to produce food for people and communities whilst delivering ecological and environmental benefits. Surely methods such as this need to be included in the widest possible debate on food futures. Eric Holt Jimenez, in his about to be published ‘A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism – understanding the political economy of what you eat’ exhorts us to get involved in our local food movements so as to challenge and engage with the paradigm shift necessary to create a truly sustainable and regenerative global food systems network. This is what many of us have been doing over a number of years across the Bristol region with limited success. At least we have been an active party in our local food futures debates. This seems not to have been the case with the post-referendum policy vacuum on all things food and farming.

Perhaps the most critical (and withering) recent report on Brexit and food security futures is that published by the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex entitled ‘A Food Brexit-time to get real’ concludes that “leaving the European Union poses serious risks to consumer interests, public health, businesses and workers in the food sector”. Its authors claim that this is because there is no Government vision for UK food or agriculture; yet prices, quality, supply and the environment will all be adversely affected even with a ‘soft’ Brexit. They warn that British consumers have not been informed about the enormous implications for their food, a third of which comes from within the European Union”. These are extremely worrying times for growers and eaters alike; especially as I cannot currently see how the UK Government is shaping up a resilient food system for its population into the post Brexit world. Clarity of thinking seems frighteningly absent at the highest level.

Future Gardening foreseen

I have recently revisited the writing of WE Shewell-Cooper’s in his 1973 edition of ‘The Complete Vegetable Grower’. The importance of this date will not be lost on EU watchers and his chapters on ‘feeding the soil’ along with ‘no digging ideas’ seem wonderfully prescient as he talks of the ‘prophets’ advocating no dig gardening methods. One thing is stressed about this no dig world. It will need huge quantities of compost and organic materials to lay onto the soil. I’m sure most of you will already know of Charles Dowding’s wonderfully evidenced work in this area over many years. I am always struck by the central importance of compost production to his work to provide organic solutions to food production which value human labour as a key input. I think his growing techniques ask many central questions concerning the food we eat and his results demonstrate what is possible.

The Royal Horticultural Society report of 2014 ‘Horticulture – Matters-the growing crisis in UK horticulture that is threatening our economy, environment and food security’  highlights some of the key trends relating to the future of the industry and in particular the perception of its relevance to the economy, the need to raise its profile and the imperative of supporting a coherent and effective programme of training across the sector. As Gardeners Question Time celebrates its 70th birthday and Monty, Nigel and Nellie continue to provide horticultural focus to our weekends, we are seeing an unparalleled interest in gardening. Horticulture has become cool across the generations. This surely provides us with huge opportunity to develop its future, including food production, into our lives at all scales to include personal, community and business endeavour.

Journalists such as Homa Khaleeli now tell us that ingesting a bit of dirt might be good for our micro-biome, whilst Victoria Coren Mitchell somewhat gloomily reports a survey by the RHS held to mark the opening of the 2017 Chelsea Flower Show, that 50% of British adults cannot name a single shrub! Whether or not that is true, I sense (and see) a real re-awakening of genuine interest in horticulture of all kinds. This takes me onto my final set of thinking as to how this whole Brexit mess may or may not work out to the benefit of the next generations. I start, perhaps unsurprisingly, with a half empty cup, which subsequently overflows with cornucopian abundance.

Pessimism beyond Brexit

The National Farmers Union revealed that currently the UK only produces enough food domestically to cover 60% of annual consumption. This, coupled with a recent assessment from the British Retail Consortium concluded that a ‘no deal’ Brexit that saw trade relations revert to World Trade Organisation rules could result in food prices jumping by a third. These bottom line figures coupled with other suggestions that food production issues could be further threatened if the industry is denied access to EU workers post Brexit make for disturbing reading. Their pessimistic outlook is further deepened by the prospect of lower food standards legislation comparable to existing arrangements under our EU membership.

Optimism and Opportunity beyond Brexit

A groundswell of action related to home, community and allotment gardening alongside commercial food production could just see the UK Government and citizen power working together to fashion our food and farming futures. Perhaps we will see the UK developing legislation for both rural and urban agriculture in a UK common agricultural policy. Perhaps the transition period as the UK leaves the EU can be used to take advantage of the current debate relating to the new Common Agricultural Policy of the EU to be launched in 2020. Perhaps an emerging UK food policy framework will finally embrace a consensus on land, soil, community, human and environmental health and societal well being in a model of Civic Capitalism akin to that advocated by Colin Hay and Anthony Payne in their 2015 book.

A Final Word

The Brexit clock is indeed ticking loud and fast, but not so clear is the direction of travel for future food security and food policy. I cannot think of a time when I felt so optimistic and pessimistic on the same day. What has emerged from this short investigation is a real sense that political expediency has dominated at the expense of a properly ordered set of consultations with the major stakeholders on the direction of travel for UK farming and gardening. Let’s us just hope that the ideas I was taught about double digging and soil sterilisation in the 1970s can be held in the horticultural archive whilst a proper and full debate on food futures can still take place. I hope that it is not already too late.


Richard Spalding

Richard Spalding is a freelance horticulturist working across the north Bristol region and can be contacted at   He offers garden advice workshops in his own garden that are tailored at developing confidence for inexperienced gardeners. The workshops focus on both edible and ornamental horticulture and are delivered in small groups.

Tags: agricultural policy, Brexit, Building resilient food and farming systems