What to Expect From Post-Brexit Policy: New Challenges and Opportunities for the Agri-Environment Sector

7th July 2017

This has been quite a big week for agriculture and future of environmental policy after Brexit. On Sunday’s Andrew Marr, Michael Gove pushed his weight in his new position as environmental secretary, laying out his clear policy priorities for fishing, farming, and environmental standards. Marr asked a number of difficult questions and Gove didn’t beat around the bush with his answers. One particularly crucial question was on the possible loosening of food and environmental standards as a result of trade deals with other countries or leaving the EU, asking if Gove could assure against that—to which he answered with a resounding ‘yes’.

Agriculture and environmental policy post-Brexit was discussed in Westminster at “Brexit and Agri-Environment and Fisheries in the UK: A New Dawn?” as well this week. While the UK’s departure from the EU leaves much unknown, the environmental community now has space to carve out a new, more integrated plan for how we approach agri-environment policy post-Brexit. With the UK agri-food industry employing 3.9m (compared to the 1.4 employed by the NHS) and generating £108bn or 7.2% of gross added value, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will need to be replaced as an immediate priority. With the Great Repeal Bill, EU environmental and welfare legislation will be carried over into UK law, and the CAP will continue to apply to the closest competitors for UK farmers. This will be particularly important to take note of between Northern Ireland and Ireland—where the former will be leaving the CAP while the latter will remain, which is likely to disrupt the flow of whole-island supply chains. Tom Lancaster, Senior Policy Officer of Agriculture at the RSPB, wants to see ambitious plans being drafted up to fill the void, but admits that the change is daunting.

To consider what shape the replacement policy will take, three constraints need to be considered: The World Trade Organization, the continued influence of the EU, and the state of the future secured trade arrangement post-Brexit.

The World Trade Organization’s rules on tariff levels and limits on how governments can support the farming sector will need to continue to be abided by with any future agri-environment payment schemes. In the event that the UK is left in a ‘no deal’ situation post-Brexit, farms could be driven out of business from increased competition and pressure could be placed on the government to weaken both environmental and animal welfare standards. The event, full of environmental insiders, was abuzz with doubt that this worst-case scenario would indeed play out, and with Gove’s assurances against the matter, it’s unlikely to happen.

Looking to Brexit and the future trading relationship that we should seek to secure, it’s particularly important to focus on the heavy reliance that the agri-food sector has on migrant labour and the consideration of supply chain integration problems that may arise, like that between Northern Ireland and the Republic. When designing these future agricultural policies, challenges of priority, coherence, governance, finance, and capacity will need to be overcome.

While agricultural concerns are unlikely to be high on the list of Brexit priorities during negotiations, priority will need to be redirected to the sector to ensure that long term consequences for the public funding of agriculture are avoided.  With Michael Gove being a prominent Brexiteer, and with his considerable weight in the cabinet, he is perfectly positioned to push the interests of the environmental community to the front of the Brexit agenda.  However, strong policy can only be achieved through policy coherence that suits the needs of the agricultural community within intersecting trading policies.  Who will take the governance lead on policy will also compound priority and coherence issues, as the Brexit negotiations are only negotiated at the UK level, despite devolved administrations being more involved—both economically and politically—in agriculture. On financing, fresh consideration of how funding would be allocated among the devolved nations must be undertaken—as the Barnett model (based on population size instead of relative importance of a particular sector) would drastically reduce funds available to farmers in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Former Chief Executive of the Environment Agency and Chair of the Woodland Trust, Baroness Young rightly stressed the importance of consideration being paid to the devolved nations, and claims that any new policy moving forward would need to utilise a common structure combining all four devolved administrations. Even if the best possible solutions are found to these issues, concerns will still remain if the civil service will have sufficient staff to develop and implement those new policies across the United Kingdom.

While there is much to overcome moving forward with Brexit, the agri-environment sector has much to gain, specifically the opportunity to redesign current policy objectives to meet the specific needs of the UK. To ensure that environmental quality is maintained and enhanced, agriculture could become a part of a wider sustainable Land Use Strategy—with a focus on “public goods”. An investigation by Greenpeace found that one-in-five farm subsidy pay-outs go to people or families on the Sunday Times Rich List, causing concern that the current strategy rewards landowners simply for owning land instead of paying farmers for their use of land for “public goods”.

With a mind to improve overall UK food self-sufficiency, quality and sustainability, agricultural policy could also be integrated into a wider Food Strategy. To boost the context surrounding agriculture, a new policy could also be integrated into a Rural Development Strategy that would seek to enhance the rural economy through investment and innovation. We could even take note of policy innovation that is already taking place within the devolved nations—with the Scottish Land Use Strategy and the Welsh Wellbeing of Future Generations Act being prime examples of policy groundwork that the government could build upon.