Farmers, many of whom voted for Brexit back in 2016, have to be concerned that the entire process is now being driven within the Westminster political bubble.
So high are the stakes that it could bring down the government. If that happens all bets would be off on the current agriculture support arrangements remaining in place until 2022.
It was ironic that this week the DUP used the Agriculture Bill, which will decide the future of farm support in the UK, to send a ‘warning shot’ to the government over its Brexit plans. Politics apart, the last thing agriculture needs is to become a political Aunt Sally. The most important industry for the Northern Ireland economy deserves better.
Whether they are leave or remain supporters, the message from farmers across the UK would be that they do not want to get drawn into this political battle. What they want is some certainly and security about their future, and that is simply not happening.
This is an issue that goes beyond the trade deal on Brexit, which is central to the disagreement with the Conservative party. In recent weeks there have been a series of reports all saying that livestock production must be curtailed, along with meat eating, as part of the drive to tackle climate change. These have come from think tanks in the EU, but more significant is a report from the United Nations climate change experts making the same point. Even the European Commission’s own in house scientists, the Joint Research Centre, have got in on the act. They are saying that to conserve water resources people need to move towards plant and fish based diets. This is creating a political group-think mentality that meat is bad for the environment, and that needs to be countered by farmers.
It will be up to the European Commission and the 27 member states that will remain after Brexit to decide whether they want to implement this policy. It is possible that this will happen, meaning Brexit is a golden opportunity for the UK to go down a different road. Instead we have Westminster politicians obsessed with the minutiae of the trade arrangements that will be in place after Brexit. Those same pro-Brexit politicians seem happy to leave agriculture, and indeed other parts of industry, saddled with EU environmental policies. This is not what people voted for in the referendum, but it seems to be what we are getting. That is more of a betrayal of the leave vote than would be a customs union of some form with the EU-27 to protect jobs. Sadly one grabs the headlines and the other does not – and it is the pursuit of headlines that drives politics.
In agriculture we are in danger of ending up with the same regulations as the EU-27, but with the added twist of even more UK environmental controls on top. There is no evidence that promises of the Brexiteers before the referendum that we would have a more progressive farming industry are being heeded at Westminster. Because of that we are likely to still be denied technology, while being expected to compete with those that use GM and other science-based techniques. The catch is that they will flood the UK market with cheap food as the price of the global free trade deals the government so desperately needs.
Government policy towards agriculture is not focussed on delivering a progressive, competitive industry. Its sole interest is in green policies that will go down well with English voters. Farmers who do not believe this to be the case are putting hope ahead of realistic expectation. As the Ulster Farmers Union president, Ivor Ferguson, said so eloquently this week, the government needs to realise that farmers cannot be green when they are in the red. Red is where the future lies if farmers are forced to accept green policies from both London and Brussels, while struggling to compete with cheap imported food. That is more of a threat than anything a customs union would deliver for Northern Ireland or the rest of the UK. Politicians need to come out and say they will put clear blue water between the UK and EU policies, and will act to protect livestock farming from attacks under the guise of climate change mitigation. Those who believe the government will do this are few, such is our cynicism that politicians will deliver the Brexit promised in 2016.