It’s not often that the views of farmers and growers on the major political issues of the day make national headlines. But it happened earlier this month when the NFU came out in favour of remaining in the EU, following widespread canvassing of its members about the EU referendum. Writes Claire Shaddick.
Although not actively campaigning for a vote one way or the other, the NFU said: ‘On the balance of the available evidence, the interests of farmers are best served by our continuing membership of the European Union.’
But the impact of a vote to leave the EU, the so-called Brexit, may not necessarily be the same for horticulture as for arable or livestock farming.
Much of the agricultural argument centres on the Common Agricultural Policy, the amount of red tape it generates and whether UK farming gains enough from it. Horticulture, of course, benefits less than other sectors from direct payments. The basic farm payment accounts for only 17% of growers’ farm business income compared to more than 50% for agriculture as a whole – and of course growers of most protected crops aren’t eligible to claim it at all.
The NFU commissioned Wageningen University in the Netherlands to model the impact of direct payments and access to markets based on various scenarios that the UK might face should it leave the EU. It acknowledges that it can’t give an accurate picture of the impacts of each scenario on horticulture, but points out that the impact of current tariff protection with respect to fruits and vegetables – for instance seasonal tariffs on tomatoes – is generally estimated to be limited, as are the effects on net trade. But price changes are assumed to be in line with the other sectors as a result of increased costs at the border – and under each scenario presented, horticultural incomes are forecast to increase as a result of greater domestic production, boosted by higher farmgate prices and a fall in EU exports to the UK.
Agricultural economist Allan Buckwell is more circumspect. In his report Agricultural implications of Brexit for the Worshipful Company of Farmers, the potential easing of access to the UK for third country imports could mean downward pressure on UK producer prices. On the other hand, processors and retailers of fresh produce will be particularly concerned to ensure continuity of supply, he says. ‘Threats to the viability of their nearest primary suppliers in Britain can encourage them to look again at the contracts they are offering. It is also conceivable that in the context of a vote for Brexit there might be a patriotic resurgence of ‘buy British’ which would also encourage supermarkets to ensure they had financially sustainable contracts with their British suppliers.’
Tariffs aside, sterling is widely expected to drop, making imports more expensive anyway, and reliance on world markets could raise prices, but could also incentivise new sources of supply, says the Food Research Collaboration report Food, the UK and the EU: Brexit or Bremain? ‘One key sensitivity [following a ‘leave’ vote] would be fruit and vegetables,’ say authors Tim Lang and Victoria Schoen. ‘The UK is 40% reliant on EU imports for fruit and vegetables. The population ought to be eating far more horticultural produce, but even at current consumption levels, the capacity for disruption would be considerable for both the UK and EU.’
Perhaps of more relevance to horticulture is what might happen to its supply of seasonal workers, should the Brexit vote win. Any restrictions on our ability to recruit workers not born here would negatively impact the sector, says the NFU.
In his report The implications of Brexit for UK agriculture commissioned by the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, Warwick University professor of politics Wyn Grant says that depending on any subsequent agreement with the EU, British exit would place limits on the availability and use of labour from the EU. ‘It is almost certain that, outside of the EU, policy for migrant labour will be at least as restrictive as it is at present, where agriculture is now not treated differently from other economic sectors,’ he says.
Availability of crop protection products is another EU-influenced issue that impacts particularly on growers. Breaking away might not necessarily ease the situation, says Professor Grant. ‘Firms would be reluctant to develop distinctive products purely for the UK market,’ he says. ‘Products that have been restricted by the EU could, in principle, be used by the UK, but there would be substantial political pressure to oppose this by a strong domestic environmental lobby.’ Nor is the outcome of the vote likely to have any impact on the ‘private’ plant protection standards different retailers impose on growers and which go beyond what public regulation requires, he adds.
Next month’s EU referendum is probably the biggest political decision the UK has had to make since the end of the second world war with implications reaching down the generations. The fact that even the government’s own ministerial team responsible for our industry is divided over whether to leave or remain in the EU tells its own story. Come June 23, growers, like everyone else, will have to weigh up the pros and cons for their businesses alongside the many other issues at stake before making that choice.
What’s being said in the debate
‘By voting to remain we can work within a reformed EU to reduce bureaucracy and secure further reform while still enjoying the significant benefits of the single market which gives us access to 500 million consumers,’ Liz Truss, Defra secretary of state, who’s for staying
‘Some 80% of legislation affecting Defra comes directly from the EU. It is all pervasive,’ George Eustice, Defra minister of state, who’s for leaving
‘British agriculture, brimming with potential, is held back by the European Union’s prejudice against advanced technology and science,’ Owen Paterson, Conservative MP and former Defra secretary of state, who’s for leaving
‘A referendum vote to leave the EU will create massive uncertainty and anxiety in the UK food and farming sector,’ Allan Buckwell, agricultural economist
‘With the level of food that we import from the EU – particularly fruit and vegetables – it deserves a prominent place in the national debate about the implications of Brexit,’ Victoria Schoen, Food Research Collaboration research fellow.