While Britain is not self-sufficient in food, 60% of the country’s food supplies does come from British farms.
In terms of the country’s economic output farming accounts for just 1%, but from the farmers’ perspective the EU is its biggest market. Food and farming provide about 475,000 jobs in the UK.
Having said that, it is argued that much of the UK’s farming would not be viable without the subsidies provided by the CAP (Common Agriculture Policy), first introduced in 1973 when the UK joined the then European Economic Community.
Indeed in 2016, Government payments to agriculture totalled £3.1bn, more than half of overall British farm income, and yet in that year 26% of farms failed to break even.
There are those who argue that the subsidy has acted as a brake on innovation, preventing some farmers from getting out of the business and others from entering it. It has also, allegedly, inhibited what some see as necessary structural change and diversification.
Could Brexit provide a much-needed shake-up in British farming?
The negatives for farming of the decision to leave the EU have been well-rehearsed. Already there have been reports that the negative attitude to EU migrant labour has had an impact particularly on fruit and vegetable farmers’ ability to recruit enough seasonal workers to pick and pack crops when they are ripe, forcing them to leave produce rotting in the fields.
At the same time, farming faces constant pressure when selling in to the food production supply chain and to the supermarkets whose purchasing power keep prices down, almost to the point of being unable to make a profit on their efforts.
Equally, farmers argue that their current tariff free trade with the EU needs to be preserved if they are to survive.
There have been some initiatives to diversify the rural economy, to the extent that it is now not uncommon to see redundant barns on farms converted in to business centres for SMEs, some farmers have capitalised on the movement for fresh, chemical free and organically grown produce and plenty have set up their own farm shops. But the inadequacy of rural infrastructure, from reliable broadband to inadequate rural roads acts as a brake on such initiatives.
Similarly, there are other vested interests, such as those who want to preserve “the countryside” and regularly oppose planning applications for a change of use to rural buildings, that act as an inhibitor to innovation.
One thing is for sure and this is that there needs to be a new vision and more joined-up thinking about the countryside, especially as the CAP will be scaled down and eventually discontinued in the transition to Brexit.
The Government produced a Command Paper in late February with proposals on what next for the rural environment and its economy. Given its impact the consultation period seems limited with input required before May ahead of a new Agriculture Bill.
Under the proposals, up to £150m in support payments could be shifted from the richest farmers to environmental schemes after Brexit. There are also suggestions for various ways of phasing out the CAP.
The aim, according to Environment Minister Michael Grove, will be to shift the balance between the environment, its protection and farming. But it also includes proposals for a national food plan, something that the NFU (National Farmers’ Union) has welcomed and incentives to farmers to pilot schemes to improve both animal welfare and to trial new technology.
Perhaps this is one case where Brexit will provide an opportunity for some innovative thinking that is arguably sorely needed.