The mystery of 2020 and beyond
WHAT a difference a year makes—or not. The mood at the 2016 Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) seemed to be for remaining in the EU, with the then Defra Secretary Liz Truss revealing there was no ‘Plan B’ in the event of a Brexit
Twelve months later, many farmers having voted to leave the EU, delegates might take the view that they’re not much wiser about the future, as current Secretary Andrea Leadsom was unable to shed public light on future trading, access to the migrant labour that is crucial for crop farming, the shape of farm payments post-2020 or whether Britain could retain access to the single market and still scrap restrictive EU measures such as the unpopular three- crop rule (Agromenes, page 23).
Last week, 53% of OFC delegates said farming would thrive (rather than merely survive) post Brexit, but an overwhelming majority was sceptical as to whether there would be any real changes. Most thought Defra’s priority should be ensuring tarifffree trade with the Eu—speakers from overseas warned about the length of time trade negotiations can take.
Deputy NFU President Minette Batters, a beef farmer and Remain voter, highlighted the dilemma: ‘I am putting cows to bulls this summer with a view to selling in 2020, but I have no idea how to plan.’ She said farmers must not be left on a ‘cliff edge’ without support and expressed the view that Britain needs to remain in the single market. ‘About 38% of our sheep meat goes into the single market; if no agreement is reached, we’ll be trading it with a 51% tariff, so the clock is ticking.’
Miss Batters’ fellow panellists, columnist George Monbiot, carrot grower Guy Poskitt and the National Trust’s Dame Helen Ghosh, agreed that the Treasury is unlikely to match the current £3 billion provided to UK farming by the EU. ‘I don’t agree with lifestyle farmers—we need to earn the money—but we do need to be able to apply for investment, such as equipment to be able to grow outof-season produce,’ said Mr Poskitt.
Mrs Leadsom said more would be known after the triggering of Article 50, after which her department will enter a period of consultation. She confirmed that she’s in dialogue with the Home Office about ‘the right sectors of EU workers’, repudiated a suggestion that Defra was ‘too emaciated to take on the Brexit challenge’ and said that there would be ‘a clearer position on tariffs’ in the coming months. ‘There are implications with tariffs, but we already export to countries where there are tariffs and our products are still in demand there,’ she pointed out.
Mrs Leadsom reported that UK food exports were up by 8% last year, with an increase in demand from China and potential deals with India, Australia, the USA and the UAE. NON-EU dairy exports are up by 91%, wheat by 80% and British lamb was voted product of the year in France. Money is being plunged into apprenticeship, rural development and agri-tech programmes. ‘Our best days as a food and farming nation lie ahead of us,’ she said.
Farming Minister George Eustice suggested that future farm payments would be a ‘universal scheme’ across all four UK departments: ‘Rather than paying a subsidy based on a raft of conditions, I’m saying “let’s reward”.’ He suggested that Britain might imitate other countries’ risk-management schemes, such as crop insurance, and that there would be no more ‘slipper farming’ (his term for landowners receiving benefits for non-farming activities or based on the amount of land they own).
‘I’ve had three years of working with EU law close up and it’s not a pretty sight,’ said Mr Eustice. ‘We have a morass of rules— about things like the width of hedges—and a dysfunctional system of payments. We need to “unbungle” the conflicting objectives of CAP [Common Agricultural Policy]. We have an opportunity to take a more holistic approach to the environment and to drive welfare standards.’
Mr Eustice’s Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish counterparts were more cautious. ‘Will Defra have the strength to take on the
Locking horns: as the debate over the effects of Brexit on farming continue, Government is accused of failing to provide leadership