Comment & Opinion
by Robert Irwin
Wide changes in the way the Britons farm are coming. Cheap energy has powered a massive rise in production since the end of World War Two, but this has levelled off and may soon go into decline due to a combination of climate change, environmentalism, loss of biodiversity and the growing animal welfare movement.
But there is a more pressing factor. In nineteen months, we leave the EU.
Neither Westminster nor the farming unions have any clear plan to deal with this.
Firstly, we import 40% of our food from the EU. If we do not remain in the single market, the price of food will rise by 22% according to Tom Brake MP, due to the imposition of tariffs and the loss of EU migrant farm workers. There is a skill to picking fruit and cutting cauliflower which Britons don’t have in enough supply. 85% of farm workers are from the EU. Most of them will leave. Our farmers will have to spend time training their British replacements to do the work, and pass the cost on to you, the consumer.
But aren’t farmers rich? – you ask. They can afford to train British staff, surely? The reality is that many Cornish farmers earn less than the national minimum wage. The all-powerful supermarkets drive their profits down and down – they won’t pay £60 for a Cornish lamb if they can get a New Zealand one for £58. So the farmers continue to exist on EU subsidies. These are about to stop. What will happen to Cornish farmers then? The uncomfortable answer is that many will go bankrupt, the price of land will crash and be snapped up by the developers of more and more second homes for people outside the Duchy.
Unless Westminster bails the Cornish farmers out, that is. I wouldn’t hold your breath.
But can’t we import food cheaply from outside the EU, where there are no tariffs to pay? Unfortunately, the position is not that simple. The EU has free trade agreement with over fifty countries. As part of the EU, we enjoy free trade with them too. But the day we leave the EU, those free trade agreements end and tariffs go up.
But can’t we negotiate our own free trade deals with those countries? Yes, but it will take years, and the EU will put pressure on those nations not to sign the deals. The EU’s GDP is six times greater than ours, and money talks.
Sterling will continue to weaken in the continuing economic uncertainty, meaning that supermarkets cannot import as cheaply and food prices will rise further.
But don’t the EU pay our farmers not to produce? When that control is taken off, won’t they we able to produce more and feed us all? There was a time when subsidies were based on production – the more produced, the bigger the subsidy. This created the famous EEC butter mountains and wine lakes, angering the World Trade Organisation. Now the value of the subsidies are on the basis of ownership, and the land is being driven hard to produce. There is no more capacity, unless we start felling the forests, which will cause us trouble with our carbon calculations under the Paris Climate Accord.
Ex-MEP, Cornish farmer and Lib Dem peer Lord Teverson described the Government’s negotiating position as “a chronic failure – they have no clue”. The Prime Minister and DEFRA want us to shift to a high cost, high quality, high animal welfare export model. Other Cabinet members want us to take a buccaneering approach, exporting cheap food to undercut our competitors. The latter strategy will fail in the face of mass bulk and low animal welfare American and Australian exports.
We voted for Brexit, which St Stephen Parish Councillor David Simpson describes as “The worst self-imposed destruction since the English Civil War”. We are already the poorest part of the UK. Soon we will have to pay a lot more for our food. That means more poverty, more crime, more addiction, more mental illness, more food banks, poorer nutrition for our kids. And one awful day, when enough people don’t have enough in their bellies, civil unrest. In the United Kingdom, in the twenty-first century.
But never mind, we are getting our country back, right?