Leaving the European Union presents a complex set of questions and opportunities for policy makers responsible for the UK agriculture and rural development sectors.
These sectors have been an inevitable breeding ground for multiple, and often conflicting, priorities – ranging from calls for better policy support for the British food industry to campaigns for the rewilding of UK agricultural landscapes.
Of course, the agricultural sector in the UK is heavily influenced by the trading of food and agricultural commodities in the single market; the direct farm payment subsidies that operate through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); and related greening measures, agri-environment schemes and EU environmental directives. Most analysts suggest that in the immediate post-Brexit era, some form of payments scheme, similar to those under the current CAP, will continue to support farmers and land owners that are practicing good environmental stewardship.Furthermore, trends towards market liberalization and the decoupling of payments from production, that have been evident under CAP in recent decades, seem likely to continue in the near future.
However, we know little about the kind of trade agreements that might be established, the amount that the UK government will invest in environmental stewardship and broader rural development, what kinds of ecological systems and statuses will be prioritised, and what form any remaining production subsidisation will take. Much remains uncertain about the long term implementation of agriculture and rural development policy in the post-Brexit era.
Some of the sector-wide market implications of potential policy changes have been modelled, but little is understood about the disaggregated impacts of policy options across the diversity of landscapes and enterprises that make up the UK agricultural sector.
A study led by Dr Stephen Whitfield at the University of Leeds offers an insight into the challenges and complexities of achieving sustainability in the UK agricultural sector. The study is based on the premise that there are lessons to be learnt from the history of a changing and evolving CAP, and from those at the forefront of agricultural production and land management (themselves representing a diversity of situations and priorities) who have experienced these changes first hand.
A recent paper published in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability presents ethnographic insights from discussions with 26 hill farmers in the Yorkshire Dales.
Focusing on the recent agricultural sector policy reform in the upland agricultural systems of the Yorkshire Dales, the authors highlight the variety of motivations and experiences of Dales’ farmers. However, common themes do emerge: the vulnerability of small and remote farms to a liberalized milk market, the problems that land-based schemes and subsidies present for the landless or tenant farmer, the bureaucratic complications and experiences of ineffectuality in environmental stewardship and animal welfare schemes, and the richness and value of the local environmental knowledge held by farmers.
From this study, two key recommendations for agricultural research and policy arise. The first is the importance of local context. Even within the EU-wide ‘common’ approach to agricultural policy, the importance of devolving responsibility for policy design and delivery to member states has been increasingly recognised (and reflected in member state choices about modulating CAP payments between Pillars and the funding of local LEADER projects, for example).
There is arguably even more scope for local disaggregation and devolvement in a post-Brexit UK agricultural sector. The Dales case suggests that recognising not only the unique ecological functions of landscapes, but the social and economic differences between agricultural regions will be important.
Family farming may be a differently valued part of landscape heritage in different locations; market resilience and economic prosperity may be associated with different metrics and thresholds for different agricultural businesses; different production systems require different degrees of flexibility in access to land and mobilization of stock; and bureaucracy and paperwork burdens may be less sustainable for some households and businesses than others. Reflecting this diversity in locally appropriate agricultural policy is an important challenge.
The second is the importance of broader systems. A localised approach cannot and should not be divorced from bigger picture thinking about the role that farmers and land managers play in providing food security (in a uncertain geo-political environment), maintaining ecosystems and valuable ecosystem services, and contributing to the broader rural economy. Within the history of the CAP, the narrowly conceived prioritisations of increasing, and subsequently decreasing, food production have had repercussions across and beyond the agriculture sector.
Achieving a localised yet systemic perspective, and negotiating some of the inevitable conflicts and trade-offs that emerge from complex socio-ecological systems, will require a fair decision making process. Decision making that gives a voice to farmers, as well as to food retailers, consumers, wildlife campaign groups, rural communities, and visitors, and provides scope for the debate and negotiation across alternative perspectives, will be important.
Here, as in the EU referendum itself and in recent agricultural sector controversies (such as those over the management of bovine TB), a single democratic vote in response to a complex and contested question, is unlikely to be sufficient to produce a satisfactory outcome. Instead negotiation must be in-built into the process of agricultural policy and rural planning.
In a post-Brexit UK, the government and policy makers should take heed of lessons from a recent history of agricultural policy reform. In seeking a sustainable agricultural system and rural economy – however ‘sustainability’ might be conceived – an appreciation of diversity and local context, and recognition of the role of agriculture and land management within broader systems, will represent a significant, and undoubtedly important challenge.