What a ‘hard Brexit’ might mean for UK agriculture

In this blog our Rural Enterprise Director, Patrick Begg, takes a look at Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference, and what it might mean for UK agriculture.

The valley and its farms at Eskdale and Duddon Valley, Cumbriia ©National Trust Images/Paul Harris

The valley and its farms at Eskdale and Duddon Valley, Cumbriia ©National Trust Images/Paul Harris

At this week’s Conservative Conference we’ve seen and heard yet more evidence of Theresa May’s innate pragmatism.  We’re to transpose all EU legislation, including those related to nature and the wider environment, into UK Law, buying us time to consider what we want, don’t want and what can be improved.  It also keeps the show on the road and sustains current levels of protection at a time when uncertainty could have eroded confidence and the authority of those regulations.

Sounds sensible and probably the best we could have hoped for.  There will be debates and challenges to some hard won environmental protections no doubt, but also some opportunities to improve sometimes clunky EU, catch-all legislation. Our big ask will be that the process of scrutiny is fair and comprehensive: it shouldn’t be possible for a Secretary of State simply to strike out hard-won EU laws and protections that work.

But other announcements and rhetoric promoting the future of UK trade, cut loose on a global market outside the EU trading zone, should give us pause for thought.

In particular, this ‘hard Brexit’ route brings with it some potentially unpalatable consequences for UK Agriculture.  How we farm matters hugely to the environmental outcomes we seek and those we can hope to achieve.

We know there’s lots to aim for in resetting the terms of the UK’s contract with its farmers and Brexit seems to offer a post-CAP, blank canvass on which to paint these new ‘contractual’ arrangements: healthier soils, cleaner water, more joined up and richer nature accessible to all, top class food, more burnished cultural landscapes, and a thriving land-based economy with a long term future.

In effect, a much more diverse and recognisable range of societal benefits provided by a rebooted farming industry, properly rewarded through the public and private purse and not hemmed in by the constraints of a CAP constructed around the needs of farmers in very different EU member states.

If the rhetoric in recent days is to be believed, the potential for the UK to be outside the single market and/or EAA looks more possible.  But a farming industry exposed to a harsh, WTO-governed market, where global competition and global prices and tariffs rule, may struggle to get off first base in achieving this shift.

A race to the bottom on standards (environmental, animal welfare, heritage), and a race to the top in terms of intensification may start to look like the only economic game in town for hard pressed farmers now asked to compete against the low regulation, huge-scale farming beyond the EU.

I suspect it’s a race they cannot win, but there’s a huge amount of damage to be done in trying.  Our bright and shiny post-CAP, public benefit rich future might look a distant prospect if we cut our agricultural industry adrift on the sea of global market forces and ever cheaper, lower quality imports.

Patrick Begg is Rural Enterprise Director at the National Trust.

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