EU and UK flag behind a grain ship

Farmers Weekly looks back at the biggest stories to hit the headlines form October to December, including progress finally made on Brexit and a summary by our guest editor NFU deputy president Minette Batters

Of all the subjects to have filled the pages of Farmers Weekly in 2017, Brexit has dominated.

Concerns about the terms of a future trade deal, the impact on labour availability and the likely shape of any future farm policy have been top of mind for producers throughout the year.

The lack of clarity on a future trade deal has been the root cause of all the uncertainty, since this will determine future prosperity for all in the agricultural sector.

See also: Video – farmers trade blows over Brexit impact

Prime minister Theresa May set out her stall with her Lancaster House speech in January. 

That signalled the UK’s intention to leave the single European market and customs union, and instead press for a “customs agreement” that would allow for “as frictionless trade as possible” while allowing the UK to forge trade deals with other countries.

These aspirations were repeated in Florence in September. 

But progress was put on hold until mid-December, when the UK and EU finally reached an accord over the size of the UK’s divorce settlement, citizens’ rights and a deal for Northern Ireland that should guarantee “full regulatory alignment” with the EU in the absence of any free-trade deal.

Labour issues

As for labour, the food sector’s dependence on migrant workers – both seasonal and permanent – has become clear during the year, with some sectors already reporting shortages. 

Lack of job security, reports of xenophobia and reduced income as a result of currency devaluation since June 2016 have all combined to drive many workers away from these shores.

A survey by the NFU revealed a 29% shortfall in seasonal workers in horticulture in September, while the British Veterinary Association has raised concerns about the loss of foreign inspectors in abattoirs.

Farm policy

The other key Brexit issue is what form domestic farm policy will take in the years ahead. The NFU revealed its preferred framework at its annual conference in February. 

The idea, fleshed out in more detail in October, is to base future farm support around three main pillars:

  • Productivity measures, such as support for research and development and incentives for investment
  • Volatility measures, such as insurance, loan schemes and direct support
  • Environmental measures, such as a basic agri-environment scheme and support for managing priority habitats.

The money spent on each would depend on the type of Brexit deal the UK finally agrees with the EU, though continued direct payments may be needed to counter market volatility.

CLA model

In contrast, the CLA issued its preferred model in July, recommending a new system of Land Management Contracts. This would see the end of the BPS system, with farmers instead paid for the delivery of defined public services.

A host of other models were presented during the year, including from farmer groups in the devolved regions of the UK, who are keen to secure a fair share of any future budget and flexibility to suit their own regional requirements.

But ultimately it will be Defra secretary Michael Gove who decides what goes into the new Agriculture Bill – expected to be tabled next spring.

Which way he is leaning seems to depend on which audience he is addressing, but the best indications came in his speech at the World Wildlife Fund in July in which he condemned the way existing CAP benefits large landowners the most, and declared himself to be “an environmentalist first”.   

Impact assessment

The AHDB tried to weigh up the impact of various trade, labour and subsidy scenarios, publishing a new Horizon report in October.

According to the analysis, an open market trade policy, plus a halving of taxpayer support, would see average farm incomes drop from £38,400 to £15,400.

But a “fortress UK” approach, with World Trade Organization tariffs applied on imports and exports, but subsidies still cut, would see incomes settle at just over £20,000.

Many farms would be forced into the red, though the top 25% would make a profit, whatever Brexit delivers.

Minette Batters looks back

Minette Batters

© David Hartley/Rex/Shutterstock

‘The only certainty for farming in 2017 was uncertainty’

Many farmers started the year with enormous uncertainty, writes NFU deputy president Minette Batters.

Uncertainty about the implications of Brexit for their businesses; uncertainty over whether they would be able to recruit enough labour for the harvest season. Uncertainty whether their BPS payments would arrive. 

On BPS, this incalculable lack of certainty forced some farmers into selling stock, and laying off labour.

Severe hardship cases forced many into a state of total despair; it’s where our amazing farming charities have been incredible, providing financial support, advice and sometimes food. But more often than not they were simply providing someone to talk to.

The NFUs CallFirst service was inundated with calls from farmers who were unable to get through to the RPA helpline service.

Poor communication

For the many farmers I’ve spoken with, it was the lack of communication with the RPA that caused the most frustration.

In so many cases, a conversation would have sorted the error and saved valuable time and money on both sides.

I’m frequently told the Australian farming database has six people running it – RPA chief executive Paul Cauldwell said he’d heard the same.

As secretary of state Michael Gove sets out his thoughts on a new domestic agriculture policy, a quick trip to Australia might be time well spent.

What nobody predicted 12 months ago was that uncertainty would be magnified by the prime minister’s decision to hold a snap general election. 

What was an attempt to create certainty where there was little backfired spectacularly. Whether we like it or not, politicians across the globe have huge impact on our farming businesses. 

Glyphosate debacle

This autumn through the process of relicensing glyphosate, we saw just how quickly evidence-based policymaking was being thrown away in European centres of power.

A five-year reauthorisation is welcomed, but it should never have got to that point given the wide global consensus on the science. How can it be right for scientifically objective risk assessment to be undermined in this way?

The expert advice is clear: glyphosate is safe – as safe as being a hairdresser or drinking a hot drink.

Decisions made on sound science, with a credible evidence base are as essential for farmers producing safe, quality, affordable food, as they are for pilots and heart surgeons. 

As farmers we can never be complacent that pragmatism and truth will drive decision-making, and we must all take responsibility for contributing to a strong evidence-base on policy.

A round-up of other news from October to December