2019-05-29 Agriculture & Brexit

Although it wasn’t a blazing hot day, I had a great time at the Suffolk Show on Wednesday, it didn’t actually rain, and everyone else I met seemed to be enjoying themselves too.

Like last year, I bumped into various people I don’t meet very often, and shared views in a relaxed way which is just not possible at a formal meeting.  Another bonus of the Show is coming across stands which I wasn’t expecting and talking to people who are at the front line of some of the exciting things happening in our County.  I was able to have brief chat about off-shore wind and the benefits for our economy and future prospects for our young people.  And I met up with a provider of on-farm waste baling machines which will make it very much easier for farmers to recycle their agricultural waste – a crucial piece in the jigsaw of my current work on waste and recycling.

Of course, the main reason for me, and other MPs, to attend the show is to meet farmers.  Not that there are many farms in Ipswich!  But Ipswich is inextricably linked to the rest of Suffolk, by the grain we export, the fertilisers we import, the services we provide to the rest of Suffolk, and the lives we all share.  The most important meeting of the day was with the National Farmers Union, and the discussion almost all revolved around Brexit.

Farmers will feel the impact of Brexit more than almost anyone else.  The Common Agricultural Policy is by far the biggest element in the European Union’s budget, and it has been a bone of contention for many years.  In the past it incentivised farmers to produce foods in quantities that nobody wanted – the so-called wine lakes and butter mountains – but it has changed radically since then. There’s still a lot wrong with the CAP, but we do need a payments system – one that enables farmers to produce the food we want, in the quantities we need, in an environmentally sustainable way, and at a price at which they can afford to continue.  The CAP is still not quite there, but if we can achieve all of those things with a new Agriculture Bill for England and Wales then we can look forward to our farmers continuing to flourish.

The problem is, the Agriculture Bill is not passed yet.  Is there any guarantee that it will be in place in order to support our agriculture once we have left the EU?  There does need to be a payments system – the USA, and most other developed nations, all have farm support systems, not just the EU.  And there are the many regulations that need to be changed to make them valid once we have left the EU too.  Parliament has waded through over 850 of them this spring.  I have spent considerable time on these as part of the Labour team, including additional ones brought forward to make up for mistakes that were made by the government on some of the changes made earlier.  Some people will just say “red tape” but we’re actually dealing with preventing rabies and harmful crop diseases and parasitic beetles and all sorts of other things.  Some of them are bound to still be wrong.

The thing the farmers fear most is that, while we have amongst the highest protections for farm animals and for our environment in the world, that won’t be of any use if they can’t sell the food they produce. If we don’t protect our farmers from cheap imports from outside Europe, much of our agriculture will disappear.  What is the point of insisting on trees and hedgerows in England if we then buy food from Asia or South America which is produced by chopping down rainforests?  We are absolutely right to have high environmental and animal welfare standards here, but we must also insist on those self-same standards for any food that we buy from abroad, otherwise we are just making a rod for our own backs.

Leaving the EU is going to be difficult for farmers.  Leaving without a deal could be very difficult indeed.  Much has been made of the effect of Brexit on manufacturing industry, but the effect on agriculture could be even more profound.  Whatever the final result of Brexit, we need to do all we can to make sure that we have healthy and sustainable agriculture in England for the future.