‘Making the most of Brexit’ – the recent DEMOS report funded by Friends Provident Foundation – is a valuable analysis of the opportunities and risks in both the process of negotiation and the outcomes for the UK. For Sustain, there is no better way to view that polarisation than looking at the agriculture and food sectors. It is clear we have a huge, almost monumental task to complete very rapidly in translating EU laws to the UK, building on them and establishing our new relationship with Europe.
The report distils the Brexit risks and opportunities and many echo those which Sustain has been concerned about for some time, for example that leaving the European Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) could lead to lower food prices and a more productive agricultural sector or, alternatively, a more sustainable ‘stewardship’ approach to land management. Sustain agree it is an opportunity to rethink farm strategy. Trade deals could also be struck with a stronger emphasis on environmental sustainability if the evidence is well presented and citizens get a say.
Then again, given the powerful agri-business lobby and the huge fear that Brexit must not be seen to raise prices, there is a real risk Brexit and the trade deals that follow could mean a lowering of farm and food standards. We could see imported goods from other nations that do not meet appropriate hygiene and health standards and there is a real risk too that we could lose many small farm businesses with serious consequences for rural economies.
Making the Most of Brexit shines the spotlight on potential impacts to the UK labour force including: staff and skills shortages, incoherence on immigration policy, and a ‘race to the bottom’ on employment protections. Agriculture and the food supply chain are likely to be hit particularly hard by lack of access to EU workers. We will be pushing hard for the UK to bank and build on the European labour regulations and to use Brexit as an opportunity to create more skilled and valued work in the food chain. We strongly believe that more of the price you pay for food should flow down the chain to farmers and workers and less to shareholders.
We too are concerned that crucial voices are not being heard in the debate. What about small and family farmers who are about to have a huge overhaul of their support system and of the regulations governing much of what they do – from pesticide regulations to labour rules? Consumers who want to keep European rules on food safety and nutrition have had no say beyond the referendum. Many may have voted for Brexit but they did not vote to have unsafe food or polluted rivers.
Sustain endorses the messages of the DEMOS report and is working hard to ensure food and farming and environment issues are at the heart of debates. We welcome the support of the Friends Provident Foundation for our work on better jobs, better farm policy and better retailing.
Vicki Hird is a published author, blogger, campaigner and strategist and is currently Farm Campaign Coordinator at Sustain as well as a consultant on all issues to do with food, farming and the environment