Brexit isn’t done: what next for agriculture?

Caught between the demands of the Agriculture Bill and the commercial pressures of Global Britain, farmers face an uncertain future.


By Will Dunn, New Statesman (UK)

10 February 2020


On 25 January 1991, the MP for Holland with Boston (later Boston and Skegness) arrived at the House of Commons carrying a two-foot length of chain. Holding it up before for his fellow MPs, Bodey described how sows on large pig farms were tethered by these short chains or held in tiny stalls for four months, unable to walk or even turn around, until they became “mentally deranged”. Bodey’s description of the appalling things he had seen on intensive pig farms in Britain, France, Germany and Denmark helped persuade his fellow MPs to legislate against such cruel practices, and on 1 October that year the Welfare of Pigs Regulations came into force.


The legislation was a win for Britain’s pigs, but for British pig farmers it was a disaster. Britain had opted to impose on its farmers a much higher requirement for welfare than that required on the continent, but free trade allowed cheaper imports to flood the market. Shoppers sympathised with the pigs, but not so much that they were prepared to spend twice as much on bacon. Imports of German pork quadrupled and in just over a decade, the number of pig farms in the UK halved.


 Many in the farming community worry that what happened to pig farming at the end of the last century could soon be repeated across the whole agricultural sector by Brexit. The Agriculture Bill, which received its second reading this week, changes the way farmers are subsidised. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) paid farmers by how much land they worked, but the new system says it will pay “public money for delivery of public goods” — which include “environmental or animal welfare improvements”. With farming in the UK subject to higher standards than elsewhere, imported produce may again become the cheaper alternative.


Nick von Westenholz, the director of EU exit and international trade at the National Farmers Union (NFU), says the decline of pig farming was an example of government failing to connect domestic policy to trade policy. “There is no point having an agricultural policy that promotes high environmental and welfare standards if your trade policy allows in a load of imports produced to lower standards,” he explains.


“The government is talking in quite reassuring terms about this,” he continues. “They keep saying they’re not going to compromise on our welfare and environmental standards in any trade deals... the problem is how you do this in practice.”


 Within a trade deal, the government can impose the higher standards it expects from British farmers on another country’s imports — but only if the other country agrees. “You can say, we’ll give you more market access for a product, but it has to be of a certain specification. In practice... if the UK becomes very restrictive and says we won’t have anything that doesn’t meet our standards, that might scupper the whole trade deal.”


But imposing welfare standards on another country’s goods is even harder outside of a trade deal. Under WTO rules...