Has British farming reached crisis point? Farmers say Brexit & free trade deals are risking our food security
Worried farmers hit out at the government, telling NationalWorld it “has no interest in protecting the agricultural industry at all”.
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“It’s very, very easy to be complacent with a full stomach,” a concerned Andrew Brown tells me.
The 59-year-old, whose family has grown wheat, barley and oilseed rape on a Rutland farm for five generations, is one of several farmers I’ve spoken to, who are all concerned about the state of British agriculture.
They cite poor food security, lower subsidies after Brexit and free trade deals allowing cheap imports to undercut UK farmers, as key concerns. Every farmer I spoke to was worried about the future of their business, with more and more land being moved from farming produce to environmental schemes, and believes the government is not doing enough to support them.
“Our low food security is leaving ourselves open and exposed,” Brown says, struggling to contain the anger in his voice. “It’s all very well saying we can always import it, we’re a rich country.
“That’s until there’s a weather problem or a crop problem abroad, and it’s not there to buy, no matter how much money you’ve got. This government has no interest in protecting the agricultural industry at all.”
Farming Minister Mark Spencer told NationalWorld: “I will always back farmers and I pay tribute to their hard work and dedication all year round to put food on our tables.”
‘Green and pleasant land’
People have been farming the land in Britain since prehistoric times. The Romans invented crop rotations, and over the centuries that followed there has been a fairly regular cycle of agricultural boom and bust.
The vistas of sheep and cattle farms demarcated by dry stone walls, winding across the Yorkshire Dales and Lake District, is one of the UK’s most iconic views. While in the south, arable farms remind us of William Blake’s “green and pleasant land”.
Currently, around 69% of the UK’s land is agriculture, yet it only accounts for about 1% of the total workforce. Our farms produce around 60% of our domestic food supply, although some of the farmers I spoke to think the actual figure is lower. This is down from a high of 78% in 1984, however it has been in the last 60s for the last decade.
And while historically, this is not a radically low figure - the NFU says it went as low as 52% in 1960 - consumers are starting to notice. Over the last year, empty supermarket shelves have become a more common sight, with eggs, red peppers and other fresh vegetables going missing.
Farmers told me that a combination of Brexit, Covid and gas prices from the Ukraine invasion was hurting poultry and pig farming, as well as cucumbers and other produce grown in greenhouses.
‘Brexit has made it really challenging’
Liz Webster, an arable and beef farmer from North Wiltshire, has set up the Save British Farming group, which is campaigning for the UK to rejoin the single market. Liz says this will help support the country’s agriculture.
The 60-year-old tells me that everything she feared about Brexit has happened to UK farming, just “a lot quicker as it’s been expedited by Covid and Ukraine”.
“Removing subsidies and removing farm support - only for English farmers - has meant the English farmer has been the biggest victim of Brexit,” she says.
“Within the UK internal market we've been disadvantaged, and with European farmers able to export here with no horrible red tape they’ve been able to undercut us. This is why we've seen pork collapse in particular.”
Currently, when UK businesses trade animal and plant products with the EU they get hit by post-Brexit red tape, while European firms are still able to export goods without full checks. The government recently delayed bringing in EU food checks once again, over fears they could cause inflation.
Cucumber grower Tony Montalbano tells me this year, in particular, he’s been undercut by cheaper imported vegetables from the Netherlands.
“When Europe has too much produce, their farmers flood the market in the UK because all our wholesalers have contracts with them. They sent it over because it is so cheap - it is cheaper to import it rather than paying us,” he explains.
Tony says Brexit made it “really challenging” for businesses like his. “The first effect was the staff, I was really struggling to find people to pick the product,” he tells me, in between dealing with customers at his busy office in Roydon, Essex.
“Then all of our costs started going up because of it, importing and exporting, everything went up. Essential things like fertiliser got more expensive, it started affecting our prices.”
Staff shortages have also affected Jane Parlour, a sheep and beef cattle farmer in Dalton-on-Tees, North Yorkshire. Her family have worked the 100-acre farm for almost 200 years, yet she’s very concerned about its future.
“The main post-Brexit labour shortage for us is vets in abattoirs,” Jane, 61, explains. “You have to have a vet there in an abattoir when you are slaughtering animals, it's not an option.
“It’s not a pleasant job, let’s be honest about it, and after Brexit a lot of vets returned home, often to eastern Europe.
“I used to supply freezer packs of lamb to nearby villages by a small local abattoir. It closed as it couldn’t get the staff, so that whole enterprise - small scale as it was - was knocked on the head straight away.” Jane, Liz and other farmers I spoke to also raised concerns about subsidies decreasing, while cheaper imports were available from Europe and further abroad via free trade agreements.
Farmers say reduced subsidies mean they are being undercut by cheaper imports
When the UK was in the EU, farmers received subsidies via the Common Agricultural Policy which was designed to guarantee a safe and secure food supply. According to the Institute for Government, UK farmers used to receive £3.5 billion per year in CAP payments.
After Brexit, this was replaced by the Basic Payment Scheme - which is slowly being phased out in favour of environmental subsidy programmes. Almost all the farmers I spoke to said the subsidies - which they have become reliant on - have gone down since Brexit.
Olivia Richardson is the NFU’s Next Generation forum chair, and runs a Hereford cattle and arable farm in Teesdale, North Yorkshire.
On a busy harvest day, she tells me: “The feedback we’ve been getting from our membership, and even just from local businesses and people in the agriculture sector, is that people want to have productive, profitable businesses that don’t rely on subsidies.
“The issue is they’ve got to have a return on investment, and if people are demanding cheap food and we are having to compete with cheap imports, then the government is going to have to support us.
“Take subsidies away all you like, but at the same time then stop cheap imports. I think there’s a lot of frustration and worry really about how we can compete going forward to make our own food security more sustainable in the future.
“If we want really high standards of welfare and if we’re trying to look after the environment as much as we can, then it’s completely pointless getting cheaper imports that aren’t produced to the same high standards.
“They are shipped in on planes and ships and therefore aren’t as environmentally friendly. It just seems a little obscene, but that message isn’t getting through to the consumers.”
‘Farmers are being used as a pawn in free trade negotiations’
One of the main benefits of Brexit that was touted by Leavers was the freedom to sign our own free trade agreements with countries around the world. The idea was to become “global Britain”, and since then deals have been struck with countries such as Australia and New Zealand - to allow tariff free imports and exports - with little economic benefit to the UK.
Even former Environment Secretary George Eustice has said that the “UK gave away far too much for far too little in return”, and the agreements “were not a very good deal” for Britain.
The farmers I spoke to were universally against these free trade agreements. Liz Webster says: “There’s no benefit to any of these trade deals, the Australia and New Zealand deals are an absolute disaster for us [farmers]. They’re great for them, but the processors will choose their meat instead of ours, because we’re still tied to high standards.”
While Andrew Brown tells me: “All these countries they want to do the free-trade deals with have a massive excess of all the things our farmers produce, so sheep meat, beef meat, wheat, oilseed rape. The whole point of free trade, as we saw with the EU, is that you have a level playing field, and it’s up to you to be competitive.
“But you can’t be competitive, with someone who’s got a completely different rule sheet. That’s a non-fiscal barrier to free trade. The likes of Australia and New Zealand are allowed to use products and techniques that are banned in this country.” The Animal Protection Index ranks the UK higher than the Antipodean nations.
Andrew says: “Farmers are being used as a pawn in the negotiations for trade deals. The whole thing is completely ludicrous, this government has no interest in food production or food security - none whatsoever.
“I’m being paid to take half of my farm out of production, which is the least risky option for me because I haven’t got to gamble against the vagaries of the weather and a huge increase in input costs.”
Food security concerns
One of the government’s main new subsidy schemes sees farmers like Andrew fill fields with trees and hedgerows to support the environment. He’s moved half of his East Midlands farm into this scheme as it is more profitable than farming the land. Liz Webster says she’s put quite a few acres of her farm into similar schemes, while others have turned their businesses towards holiday cottages and lets.
“There’s no way I can make up lost subsidy money from any farming activity, so I’m being forced into these environmental schemes,” Andrew says. “The ridiculous thing is you’re just exporting your environmental problems somewhere else, as that lost production has got to be made up from somewhere.”
It means Britain’s food production is shrinking and with that our food security is reducing. The NFU reports that we produce 60% of the food we need in the UK, however Liz believes this figure could actually be below 55%.
“That means we’re more reliant on imports and we’re making ourselves more reliant on Europe for food than ever before,” Liz says. “They have opened up the market with Morocco, but as we’ve seen with the tomatoes - because of the weather situation in Morocco and southern Spain - when there’s a shortage, we’re at the back of the queue.”
While the UK will never be able to produce all of the food it requires at home - you can’t grow bananas or pineapples in Britain for example - the NFU says that the effects of climate change are making our own food security more important.
Speaking earlier this month, President Minette Batters said: “I have never known such volatility in the global food system. Climate change is wreaking havoc on food production across the world, with farmers in Southern Europe literally fighting fires while farmers here are despairing as they now must spend thousands of pounds to dry sodden grain.
“It is clear that our food supply chains need to be better prepared and more resilient to deal with global shocks and the extremes of weather that are fast becoming the norm. While we will always be a trading nation in food, we cannot remain over-reliant on imports when other countries are also facing significant challenges economically and climatically.
“Our supply chains are too vulnerable. So, the government needs to take an active interest in the UK food chain resilience. It starts and ends with our food security. We need to be able to produce more of our own food at home, regardless of what else is going on in the world.”
‘The days of very cheap food are over’
The NFU is calling on the government to legislate so the UK’s self sufficiency does not drop below 60%. And the union’s Next Generation forum chair Olivia Richardson believes consumers are starting to notice this. Be it shortages of tomatoes and peppers on shelves or the only available eggs being from caged chickens in Italy.
“People have taken food for granted,” she says. “We’ve all been very lucky as a nation that we’ve been able to do so, but we’ve got to a point in time where that expectation needs to be revised a little bit. If people are willing to pay more for their food, then farmers and food producers can make investments.”
Jane Parlour agrees: “I think the days of very, very cheap food are probably over. If you want cheap food and you don’t want farmers to go out of business, then you need to provide some sort of support.
“From the perspective of a politician, we’re not that important. Suddenly farmers become very important in times of national crisis. When the country is OK, nobody is really interested, we’re just those annoying people you get stuck behind in a traffic jam.”
‘A new relationship with the countryside’
Earlier this year, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer pledged a “new relationship with the countryside” in a speech to the NFU’s conference, in which he said that “food security is national security” and promised to improve farmers’ trading relations with the EU.
Jim McMahon, the Shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, told NationalWorld: “Thirteen years of Tory government negligence has seen British food producers undermined in every way possible which has harmed jobs, rocketed prices, and damaged our food security.
“The Tories have failed at every turn, creating a perfect storm of endless red tape, botched trade deals, broken support schemes, labour shortages and crippling production costs which have undercut our own producers and squeezed hard-working families beyond any limits on their weekly food shop.
“Labour is clear, food security is national security. Labour has a plan for supporting our food producers by ensuring that we buy, sell, make, and grow more great British food, entrenching Britain’s reputation as a beacon for quality food, high standards and ethical treatment of animals.”
‘The government will always back farmers’
NationalWorld sent a briefing to the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, detailing farmers’ concerns. In response, the government said it has rolled out numerous schemes to support the agriculture industry, including the Sustainable Farming Incentive, and increased Countryside Stewardship rates.
Farming Minister Mark Spencer told NationalWorld: “I will always back farmers and I pay tribute to their hard work and dedication all year round to put food on our tables.
“I will continue to do all I can to support them - from maintaining the £2.4 billion annual budget to the recent Farm to Fork summit where we announced a package of measures to protect farmers’ interests in future trade deals, boost domestic fruit and vegetable production and deliver new investment in technologies.
“As the Prime Minister made clear at the summit, we are committed to maintaining food production at current levels. Supporting our farmers and food producers remains at the heart of our plans to grow the economy.”
The government says that the UK has a high degree of food security and a highly resilient supply chain. Defra added that in the Agriculture Act 2020, the government made a commitment to produce an assessment of our food security at least once every three years - with the most recent one being published in December 2021.
‘We need people to recognise the importance of British farming’
So what next for farmers, what will help the agricultural industry going forward? Olivia Richardson says: “We need people to recognise the importance of British farming and British agriculture and a really local good supply chain. We need to have this land in productive use to ensure our food security is stronger going forward.
“Farming can fit into a holistic view of improving the nation. More local products, produced at a higher standard, mean people will be healthier and make healthier choices.”
Jane Parlour agrees: “Formulate some policies which are long-term and look at the bigger picture of what else we can do on farms, from looking after the countryside to energy supply, rather than just produce food.”
Tony Montalbano wants more government support. “The government is definitely not doing enough to help farmers, we never feel like we have someone behind us to support us and push us forward,” he says.
“Give us a backbone, and we’ll provide the British with the vegetables they need at the beginning of the season - as we know we’ll be supported - and you won’t have to import it.”
Liz Webster says she would tell Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer to rejoin the single market as quickly as possible.
“We need to build back our farming system to be as healthy as it possibly can for our future generations,” she tells me. “In the long run, relying too much on imported food is not good for us. We’re always going to have to import some food, so that’s why Europe made sense.”
As we’re wrapping up Liz says: “People thought I was mad when I said I was really scared of food shortages after Brexit, but people don’t think I’m mad anymore. It’s not a nice thought thinking we’ve got a whole zombie nation running round going hungry.”