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Farming after Brexit

Soil Association’s Dr Tom MacMillan explains our once-in-a-lifetime chance to mend the nation’s relationship with food, farming and the countryside
Dr Tom MacMillan

This article appears in the spring issue of Magazine, distributed with the Guardian on 07 April 2017. Click here to read the full digital issue online.

Around 60% of farm incomes are shored up by European farm payments and post-Brexit support is only promised until 2020, so farmers are bracing themselves for what’s to come.It’s estimated that 65% of UK agricultural exports head for the EU and 70% of our imports originate there.

As well as involving painful tariffs, Brexit could put an end to the free movement of the EU workers many farms and food processors have come to rely on.Despite these challenges, post-Brexit changes to farming policy could also present an unprecedented chance for a more ecologically sustainable farming system that sees local food thrive, encourages biodiversity and animal welfare, promotes health and boosts rural economies

In February I gave evidence to the EU Energy and Environment sub-committee at the House of Lords, which is looking into these issues. I made the case that the future of our farming, food and countryside hangs in the balance.

Brexit could be hugely damaging if it brings new uncertainty, compromises UK standards or puts even heavier pressure on public spending. Yet it could help if the UK takes the opportunity to raise standards and reorient farming and land use to deliver what the public needs and expects.

A YouGov poll commissioned by Friends of the Earth shortly after last year’s referendum found that 83% of us expect the same or higher standards as EU laws when it comes to the protection of wildlife and wild areas.

As the UK leaves the relative security of having guaranteed trading partners, we must stand strong in negotiations with new partners. Watering down standards would compromise opportunities for export and undermine the British public’s confidence in animal welfare, food safety and traceability. We have an economic interest, plus a moral one, in aiming high.


It will be a battle to protect existing standards and head off trade deals that would spell disaster for British food, farming and the countryside. Yet if that is all we achieve, we will have failed. Even before Brexit, we face monumental challenges.

In farming that current policies are failing to address. Simply perpetuating this wouldn’t be something to be proud of.These challenges range from the here and now – low prices and high costs for farmers, the dangerous over-use of antibiotics and the devastating impact of bovine TB – to the creeping, monster tasks of meeting the UK’s commitment to an 80% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and reversing a long-term decline in wildlife.

Meeting these challenges will require bold new ideas that change the rules; we can’t just reinvent the Common Agricultural Policy with a new accent.

New ideas from the Soil Association

The Soil Association has put some thought into what some of these game-changing ideas could be (see below). We think these bold ideas could be transformative, but we don’t have all the answers. That’s why we’re urging others to be ambitious, too. Whether or not we wished for it, leaving the Common Agricultural Policy is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to mend our nation’s relationship with food, farming and the countryside.

When you put trees in fields you get more than the sum of the parts. You can produce more – often between 10% and 40% – as the trees and crops catch the sunlight and plumb the soil at different depths. You also lock up more carbon and boost wildlife.

Investing in soil
This is fundamental to farm productivity, food security, climate change and public health. Government policies to restore and protect soil include soil stewardship payments, monitoring and reporting on soil health.

A tipping point for organic
Organic farming encourages wildlife and cuts the use of pesticides and antibiotics. The organic market is growing in the UK, but only 3% of our farmland is organic – what would it take to be more like Sweden (at 16%) or even Austria (nearer 20%)?

A good life for farm animals
Let’s insist on truly decent standards of animal welfare – what government’s animal welfare advisers call ‘a good life’, rather than just ‘a life worth living’ – and make high welfare systems the attractive option for farmers and investors. This needs to go hand-in-hand with stopping the routine, preventative use of antibiotics.

Backing farmer-led innovation
Whatever happens, this is going to be a time of rapid transition in farming, and we’ll rely more than ever on farmers’ ingenuity. We need to help farmers work out practical, more sustainable ways of farming and reward scientists who help them. At least 10% of the £450m the UK spends annually on agricultural research should be put into farmer-led projects. Check out for an example of how this could work.

Making the most of public procurement
The UK public sector spends £2.4bn a year on food and catering services. We should make the most of this spending power to drive the demand for food produced to high standards.

Click here for more from the Soil Association.

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