'A tiger is chasing us': British farmers fear for their future

UK pursues free trade deals plus stricter environmental standards - both at the expense of home-grown food

Richard Tucker on his farm in Tiverton in Devon, south-west England. He said British farmers are at a crossroads.

Who would be a farmer in Britain? It is certainly no walk in the park – up at dawn, beholden to the weather, and there is little free time.

What is more, those who work in the industry say, farmers are being held in a holding pattern as the UK government pursues competing objectives of protecting the environment, making the sector more efficient and promising the electorate cheaper food.

A free trade deal with Australia, the first to be negotiated from scratch since the UK left the EU, was seen as a symbolic moment in the future of British farming.

British farmers say that the deal could put them out of business if the market is flooded with cheaper meat, warning that their future is at stake if larger deals are struck with agricultural behemoths such as the US and Brazil.

Richard Tucker, a dairy farmer from Tiverton in Devon, said it felt as though British farming was in a battle for its survival.

Only the most resilient will make it, he said.

“We’re at a crossroads at the moment,” he told The National.

“It’s like you’re being chased by a tiger, and when you’re being chased by a tiger, you have to run."

Mr Tucker feels harried by the prospect of relentless changes after Brexit heralded the end of a decades-long subsidy programme, the acreage-based European subsidies that allowed many farms to survive.

In future, the government will pay farmers to be custodians of the countryside through rewilding initiatives. At the moment, farmers are paid by British taxpayers based on the size of their farms, now about £233 ($321) per hectare and comprising a third of farm incomes.

Old-timers too set in their ways to embrace the government’s new green vision will be given money to retire from the land, allowing younger generations to come through.

But Mr Tucker said farmers are being asked “to up their standards to stand still”.

“We’re in no man’s land,” he said.

“There's a lot of things that we don’t know the outcomes to, and it makes it hard to plan ... to be honest.

“The return on all of this is not that obvious.”

While Brexit has given Britain the power to set its own agriculture policy, many farmers do not like what they see.

“We’ve become subsidy junkies over the years,” he said.

“You could controversially say that it’s taken people’s minds off the business, but one man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity.

“We’re just scratching our heads at the moment to see where we want to go.”

Subsidies about to dry up

According to the UK government, British farmers had received about £3.5 billion ($4.81bn) in subsidies per year from the EU, but now the existing payments will be phased out over a seven-year transition.

From then, farmers will instead receive “public money for public goods”, such as better air and water quality, higher animal welfare standards, improved access to the countryside or measures to reduce flooding.

A separate environment bill is also likely to have a significant effect on farmers, with new requirements for emissions, resource efficiency, waste reduction and biodiversity.

Seema Kennedy, who was an adviser to former prime minister Theresa May, said the agricultural sector was facing a reckoning on climate change.

“We know that people very close to the PM are very passionate campaigners on the environment, we know that the move to net zero is important,” she told a think tank discussion on agriculture.

“Farming and the countryside has to play its part, but what you’d hear from farmers is there needs to be a recognition that we need to produce food.”

She said the government was facing a policy choice between food production or action on climate change.

“Are we going to be self-sufficient on food or are we going to tackle the climate conundrum?” she said.

“That choice hasn’t been socialised in British society enough.

“We’re almost addicted to cheap food. Well, you can’t have cheap food, really high environmental standards and high animal standards. There has to be some give.”

Mr Tucker said the effect of British farms on the environment was minimal.

“The world needs to eat,” he said.

Last month, the government signed the first trade deal in the post-Brexit era negotiated from scratch, with Australia.

Farmers reacted with fury to the move, suggesting Australian beef and lamb would undercut them on price, potentially forcing them out of business.

On the day the deal was signed, former Australian trade negotiator Dmitry Grozoubinski sent a warning to British farmers.

"Access to the agricultural market is our North Star. As Australian trade negotiators, it is our prime directive," he said.

"You can’t get much better than full access, and I do say there is some champagne being popped in Canberra today."

Australia free trade deal 'blatantly not fair'

He suggested British farmers "should be far more concerned about what comes next" and the "precedent this establishes for future trade deals".

Mark Weekes, a lamb farmer from Exeter, said the Australia deal was “blatantly not fair”, given that British farmers adhere to stricter animal welfare standards.

“How the hell can we negotiate with any other country now?” he said.

“We’ve allowed Australia completely free access and that sets a very dangerous precedent.

“I don’t think it’s protectionism to say that imports need to be reared and manufactured to the same standards that we do.

“We’re put at a commercial disadvantage by producing food to those standards and it’s only fair that others should be required to do the same.”

The Australia deal is a symbolic prize for Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he tries to show the upsides of Brexit.

To appease the concerns of farmers, the agreement limits agricultural imports for several years, including an initial 35,000-tonne cap on beef imports from Australia.

But the National Farmers Union said that agreement does not do enough to protect farms.

“It’s not clear at all that the safeguards that have been announced will have any effect,” NFU president Minette Batters said. “These are enormous volumes.”

Britain's International Trade Secretary Liz Truss said that the 35,000-tonne initial beef quota amounts to “only” 15 per cent of total UK beef imports from the EU.

Britain’s Department for International Trade also said that Asia is a more important market for Australian meat exports, and any imports of Australian meat to Britain would probably replace EU imports.

The NFU contested that stance, saying that even if Australian meat replaces EU imports it would still put a downward pressure on domestic prices.

“It’s clearly additional access to what the EU already has,” said Nick von Westenholz, NFU director of trade and business strategy.

“Fifteen per cent additional access is quite significant.”

On the myriad challenges facing the sector, particularly as the government pursues free trade deals, Ms Kennedy questioned whether farmers' concerns would be heard in the corridors of power.

“Who are the more important consumers to the government right now?” she said.

“Is it the ones who are willing to pay higher prices, who want organic, free-range animal meat? Or is it the consumer who has voted Conservative for the first time in a northern seat and is conscious about money?”

Updated: July 05, 2021, 6:30 AM