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The Brexit Files: Agriculture – All You Need to Know

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Part 1 of an exciting new series ‘The Brexit Files’ which explores what impact Brexit could have on the UK environment, featuring brilliant articles by Sarah Clews. 


Brexit and the environment: two mammoth topics on their own. Trying to tackle them both in one sitting seemed a little overambitious! I’ve decided to break things down, with the aim of hopefully revealing a clearer picture of what our decision to leave the EU could mean for the UK environment. For 45 years the UK has been a member of the EU, and unsurprisingly this has resulted in 80% of our environmental legislation having been made at the EU level – by my calculations that’s a hefty amount of laws that will need reviewing or amending once we go it alone.

In this article I’ll be providing you with the facts on agriculture – an important sector in the UK economy which includes the dairy, meat and crop industries. Here’s the Brexit breakdown…

The Big Change: Leaving the EU means leaving the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP):

Most importantly for agriculture, when we leave the EU, we will also be leaving behind our membership of CAP, the EU’s flagship agricultural set-up. First things first, what exactly is the CAP, you may ask? The EU define the CAP as a “partnership between agriculture and society, and between Europe and its farmers”. Most importantly, the CAP seeks to support farmers and promote their productivity. Yet it also claims to value and encourage the sustainable management of rural landscapes and natural resources.


On the surface then, the CAP sounds like a great initiative with a wholesome, holistic approach to both farmers and the land – however it has received a lot of criticism. The CAP supports farmer’s incomes across the UK, an average to the sum of 50-60% and whilst this may seem like a good thing, these direct payments have proved controversial. Initially, they were envisioned as a support tool to aid farmers through periods of market instability, but experts now claim that they have created an unhealthy cycle of dependency in which farmers depend upon the CAP as a means to survive. Critics claim they distort the agricultural market, and these payments now account for the majority of the CAP budget leaving little money for other strategies. The CAP has also been labelled as unnecessarily complex and detrimental for the environment.

How the CAP impacts UK farmers:

In the UK, farmers receive varying levels of support from the CAP. According to DEFRA, in Northern Ireland, farm incomes rely on a staggering 87% of their income from the CAP, whilst Wales is not far behind with 80%, Scotland sits at 74% and England takes the smallest sum at 55%. It is alarming to learn that the farming industry depends this much on European subsidies, and if the UK strikes out alone, negotiations on funding support must surely be top of the agenda.


The future for Agriculture in the UK after Brexit: will we sink or swim?

Whilst leaving the CAP will clearly have its own challenges, there is also opportunity to bring in the new. The UK has a once in a lifetime chance to mastermind a complete regeneration of the UK agricultural policy and to create a policy that better fits the needs of the UK agricultural industry.

What is the current Conservative government’s stance on the future of UK agriculture?

On the EU stage, the UK government has made its stance clear in recent years: it wants to reduce agricultural support and see a more market-driven sector. Importantly, the government have voiced their intention to see any funding that is given be linked to the provision of public goods. The environment secretary, Michael Gove, is seeking to implement policy that views agriculture as part of a wider vision including land use, rural development and sensitivity to environmental protection – all music to the ears of those who care about the environment.


Gove’s public goods approach: farmers that champion sustainability, quality and are kind to the environment

Gove has reassured farmers that they will be guaranteed the subsidies which they are accustomed to receiving at the current EU level until the 2022 election, in effect a transition period to minimise disruption. However, after this period, Gove has a whole new vision for subsidies in the UK and what farmers would need to do in order to receive them. Subsidies will be allocated in exchange for farmers meeting public goods targets, rather than for simply producing food alone. These “public goods acts” all revolve around the aim of improving the UK agricultural industry’s impact on the environment. The policy envisions farmers as key players on the front line, implementing public goods acts such as planting meadows, rotating crops, protecting water sources and promoting access to the countryside.

What are the biggest challenges for creating a solo, UK agricultural policy?

1. Agricultural funding is currently dished out according to need: i.e. the importance of agriculture to the nation’s economy and not population size. If this were to change, farmers in more sparsely populated countries such as Wales and Northern Ireland who rely on funds to sustain their businesses may suffer.

2. Creating a new governance framework agreed upon by all four nations (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) which effectively delivers for the needs of each?

3. The UK government’s capacity, both in relation to human resources and technical know-how, to handle the mammoth task of policy-making responsibility. The UK Civil service is at its smallest since WW2 and DEFRA’s headcount had been cut by 2/3 since 2005.

4. Our future policy if we are out of the EU must fit within WTO (world trade organisation) rules.

5. Achieving as harmonious a trade deal as possible with the EU and access to a reliable workforce is critical for the smooth-running of the UK farm industry.

6. Maximising our own production and become more self-sufficient – according to the National Farmers Union, Britain would currently run out of food by August 2019 if we couldn’t import from the EU and elsewhere after Brexit.

About the Author: Sarah Clews has just graduated from the University of York with a degree in English Literature & History. She is passionate about conservation-politics and protecting the environment for the generation of tomorrow. She also loves writing, reading and photography – you can visit her website here. You can find her on instagram at sarah.clews. She is open to messages and questions about this article. 

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