Hooves clicked on the pavement outside Whitehall last month when farmers herded a flock of sheep down the street to protest against Brexit.
The farmers’ T-shirts read “Let us be heard” as they campaigned for a second referendum on leaving the EU.
While the puns may be funny, the situation facing British farmers is not: once the UK is no longer bound by Europe’s common agricultural policy, they face a period of profound change.
A new approach to how farm subsidies are handed out is expected to reduce support, while new trade deals and tariffs endanger the competitiveness of products at home and abroad.
The government has promised to put the environment at the centre of its new approach to farm subsidies after Brexit. This may sound attractive, but experts predict the upheaval could force up to a quarter of farms out of business, while the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said it could make the UK less self-sufficient in food production and even more reliant on imports.
Total payments currently received by farmers in the UK under the EU regime
If the plan goes ahead, farmers will no longer receive annual “basic payments” based on the area of land they cultivate. Instead farmers will be paid only if they carry out land management or environmental projects, for example, to protect wildlife or provide clean water.
By delivering such “public goods”, the government argues that farmers will earn their right to support rather than being entitled to it. It has promised a “green Brexit” with the new policy, saying it would leave “the countryside in a cleaner, greener and healthier state for future generations”.
Today, under the EU regime, farmers in the UK receive payments of around £3bn a year, but experts have warned that support may be much lower under the new system as agriculture competes with other priorities such as healthcare or education for funding.
The basic payment will start to be phased out in 2021 until it is completely replaced by the new subsidy scheme by 2028.
The new farm policy “ignores food production” and could result in output failing to keep pace with population growth, according to the NFU.
If the UK leaves the EU without a deal, many goods — including cheddar cheese, beef, pork and wheat — will immediately be subject to export tariffs when going into European markets.
The loss of such markets would be a big stress on farms, even before the new subsidy policy comes into force. About 60 per cent of the UK’s exports of food and drink headed to the EU last year, according to the Food and Drink Federation. Meanwhile, about half the UK’s food is imported, with 30 per cent coming from the EU, and another 11 per cent from non-EU countries under trade deals negotiated by the bloc.
Trade policy will also determine just how sustainable and environmentally friendly Britain’s food system becomes after Brexit.
The UK would be free to sign new trade deals after leaving the EU, but such negotiations are expected to be lengthy and complex, with powerful nations like the US pushing for better access to UK markets for their own agrifoods businesses. The Trump administration has already begun pushing for access for America’s chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef, which both fall short of EU standards.
Joe Stanley, who grows crops and raises cattle on his 750-acre farm in the East Midlands, fears that the new government policies would damage food production. “I don’t think they care about producing food in this country, and would be fine with importing food with lower standards,” said Mr Stanley. “It’s going to be a bargain-basement race to the bottom.”
Derrick Wilkinson, a consultant and former chief economist for the NFU, admits that it is hard to predict how things will shake out for agriculture after Brexit.
“For consumers, they just want good products at good prices. But for the industry, anything that reduces production is seen as a negative,” he explained. A serious discussion was needed about how Brexit would affect competitiveness and what kind of trade policy would help farmers to “mitigate the downsides”, he said.
Julia Aglionby, chairman of the Uplands Alliance, an organisation that brings together farmers, conservationists academics, and policy makers to advocate for the hilly regions of England, argues the current political paralysis is not good for farmers. Farmers have raised sheep in the region for generations, helping to create a bucolic green landscape, but many barely break even and rely heavily on government subsidies. “It is a very uncertain time,” she said.
Many predict sheep would be hard hit in a no-deal Brexit because much of the meat is exported to Europe and would be subject to tariffs. The government is preparing an aid package that would pay farmers a fee for each lamb, but Ms Aglionby warned that such measures could have perverse consequences for the environment if they encouraged farmers to keep more sheep than the land could handle.
If there is no market for sheep, farmers will keep them for another year, she explained. “The right number of sheep can be really good and the wrong number can be damaging, leading to soil erosion and overgrazing.”
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