Back to the future?
The historical ability for the UK state to periodically create self-inflicted harm upon its own food system seems to be raising its head again as the country triggers Article 50 to remove itself from the European Union. We should remember that the repeal of the Corn Laws in the 1840s, opening up the UK to cheap food imports (based indeed on subsidised imperial preferences to its colonies), in exchange for colonial penetration of its financial and manufacturing interests and sectors, created the conditions for a long- running agricultural and rural depression in the UK, lasting well into the 1930s. That Imperial regime of ‘free trade’ created much harm to the British food system, its rural areas, and indeed shaped a dependent food diet based upon imports from colonies and other European nations (like Danish Bacon and Dutch eggs and pork). What is ironically labelled as the ‘full English’ breakfast up and down the land derives from the successful import penetration of its component parts from overseas. The decline in our food-based infrastructure was so bad that, by the onset of the 1st World War, Lloyd George had to go ‘cap in hand’ to the likes of Henry Ford to plead concessions on building his tractors on these shores in order to resolve food and rural labour shortages. Even by 1941 the national farm survey found the agricultural situation in a parlous state, even before the U-boat campaign further disrupted food supplies and led to a period of prolonged public food rationing until 1954.
Brexit: A Vortex for UK food and farming?
We preface our discussion here with these historical references because we think, as the staggered and contested process of Brexit begins to unfold, that there are potentially all the modern signs of the country again, either naively or by ideological intent, sleepwalking into a period of significant retrenchment with regard to its agri-food and rural economy and governance. Moreover, unlike the Imperial period when the British state could, with some domineering largesse, confer imperial preferences and other quid pro quos upon many of its exporting colonies, it will now be in a far weaker trading position to bargain trade deals around the world. We should recognise that the EU had empowered British food and its trade not stifled it.
So, where is this going to leave food producers, processors, those who currently work in the industry, and indeed the food consumer? We argue here that without a national strategy for food and farming, where the country comes together to develop an innovative, internationalist and integrated-systems- approach to the production and supply of sustainable food and promoting sustainable diets, we will enter and leave the Brexit process in ways which could severely exacerbate food poverty and food vulnerability for a generation or more.
The latter half of the 20th century taught us that state policies in various guises around the world, were critical in stabilising the inevitable volatilities in food supply and demand. Since the combined food, fuel, financial and fiscal crisis that has been ensuing since 2007-8, successive British governments have failed to systemically address the widening food inequalities and vulnerabilities emerging; neither have they wished to address the secular decline in farm infrastructures, with the continued, seemingly accepted decline in family farms year on year. Well before Brexit emerged, our UK food system was both dysfunctional and broken- creating more food poverty, greater health risks, and dangerously reliant upon highly carbonised imports.
After a brief initial ‘hangover’ period after the Brexit result, when many interests in the sector were arguing for a sort of ‘business as usual’ model for British food and farming, whereby access to the Single European Market, and various support mechanisms would be maintained, it is now clear – following Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech , the drafting of the Brexit White Paper and indeed the total failure of any political opposition in Parliament – that a ‘hard food Brexit’ approach will ensue.
What is also clear, as recent leaked documents have suggested (see Times report, Friday, 10th Feb), is that food and farming are not seen as priority sectors once the real negotiations begin after agreeing exit from the Single market. Food and farming – wrongly in our view – will be at the rear of the queue of sectors to be negotiated in the interregnum that will emerge after the UK exits from the Single market, with the high value added sectors of pharmaceuticals, cars, financial services, and aerospace leading the discussions, followed by electronics, fisheries, steel , oil and gas. Food and farming will not be the only sector that will find itself between a ‘rock and a hard place’ with regard to trading access to post Brexit Europe. It is important then, in order that we can create a more positive climate for progressive debate, to begin to spell out the serious consequences of these policy actions for the food and farming sector, particularly in the political vacuum which has engulfed Westminster with regard to the long-term vulnerabilities to which central government is exposing large sections of its domestic population.
The food and farming sector is highly vulnerable to whole systems regime change which these actions will exacerbate. That is to say that it will cause potentially a series of systemic effects rather than singular effects. So far, largely because of the fragmented and contested debates in the sector on the Brexit process, this overall systemic effect has been largely ignored. Systemic effects mean not only that one condition may lead to another; it also means that after this effect different negative/positive feedback effects can take place which increase/decrease the resilience or vulnerability of the food and farming system as a whole. Most food scientists and scholars now agree that the most appropriate ways to conceive of food and farming is as a system; a system that contains many feedback loops, causes and effects, all influenced by the key actors of firms, governments, consumers , producers etc.
It follows then that: (i) the ‘hard food’ Brexit process could create a significant perturbation or structural shift in the current UK food system; and that, if we are not careful, this could lead to a series of deepening negative feedbacks in the already vulnerable food system as whole. This then creates: (ii) the conditions for a vortex- a series of interconnected links and causes and effects which lead to the decreasing capacity of the food system as a whole to sustain itself. Because the food and farming system is so deeply integrated with the EU and other world markets, we are grossly underestimating these potential vortex tendencies. So what are some of the conditions that would create the vortex?
(i) On the food production side, leaving the EU single market and making it more costly and more complex to trade in Europe will be devastating for British farmers given the overall size and scale of the EU market, especially in beef, dairy and lamb products.
(ii) Turning (very slowly) to other trade deals and subsequent markets (e.g Australasia , North America) will take time and likely be far smaller in scale.
(iii) Prospective “America First” trade deals with the US will seriously open up UK domestic markets to less regulated food products such as hormone-treated beef and dairy, GM feeds and food inputs etc.
(iv) Farm subsidies (especially Pillar 1 single farm payments) may cease or be curtailed, even though many family farms are totally dependent upon them for survival. Large –scale cereal producers whilst potentially competing on more volatile world markets, will need to adopt new precision and automated technologies, again increase economies of scale. Dairying will only be economic on intensive mega dairies, further leading to concentration in the sector.
(v) Retailers will find it more difficult to source cheaply imported goods (see recent marmite, courgette issues) both as a result of rising costs of food imports and climate change effects;
(vi) Intensive horticulture will no longer have access to cheap migrant labour and will force some producers either to further automate, liquidate, or move production out of the UK to EU states with cheap labour- with more horticulture production in eastern Europe and Southern Europe.
(vii) Far from Brexit leading to a reduction in ‘red tape’ and regulation, the regulatory rules between different territories and food sectors will become more complex. The UK agencies (DEFRA and FSA) will have to shoulder more of the regulatory burden for food safety, hygiene and quality branding. This will come at significant public cost.
(viii) As we are already seeing in the British rural areas, decline in government tax revenues means increases in rural business tax rates. This is likely to continue, as with overall council taxes.
On the consumption side:
(i) Urban consumers are likely to find increases in food and energy prices at their local supermarkets which will exacerbate already record levels of food and energy poverty.
(ii) Short supply chain quality foods (including organics) will be available but at higher cost and exclusionary, fuelling more polarised consumption patterns;
(iii) Diet-related health conditions – which are already threatening to bankrupt the NHS – will grow especially among the young, the old and the most vulnerable;
(iv) New trade deals could reduce the capacity and inclination of governments to procure national and regional brands, giving precedence to more imported foods;
(v) Consumers will face a wider variety of food qualities and indeed food risks.
So far it is surprising how little central government or parliamentary concern there has been for safeguarding and indeed enhancing the UK food and farming system during and beyond the Brexit process. Food and farming is not just a commodity-making sector like cars, drugs or indeed finance, all of which are instrumentally significant activities – they are means to an end. Food and farming, in contrast, is an intrinsically significant activity because it is vital to human health and well-being – it is therefore both a means and an end. As an ecological as well as an economic system, it deserves a special status in policy circles. For all these reasons, we need an urgent public debate about the future of food and farming in the UK because this sector – a sector that is critical to future employment, public health, ecological integrity and social justice – is currently suffering from a Cinderella status in Brexit negotiations.
First published on the Food Research Collaboration blog