'British farming is going to have to fight very hard to survive'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

This week, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the UK had struck its first post-Brexit trade deal with Australia, following months of deliberation between ministers.

The deal, whilst arguably minute in scale - with exports likely to add between 0.01 to 0.02% of value to the UK's GDP over 15 years, largely because of the distance separating the two countries - will allow tariff-free trade between them, giving each other access to one another's markets and bringing down prices for consumers.

Perhaps more importantly, it is the first precedent set for any future deals we might strike - with New Zealand, the US, or the vaster Trans-Pacific Partnership, reigniting questions over the import of the controversial hormone-injected beef and chlorinated chicken.

While it will likely benefit British car manufacturers and exporters of Scottish whiskey, representatives for the farming industry have raised concerns about the likelihood of being priced out by imports which don't meet our own high standards.

The National Farmers' Union has called for government to engage with the industry and to give Parliament oversight over the deal, "to ensure it is right for the whole of the UK, " as the details of the deal have yet to be ratified and published.

To understand the impact that tariff-free imports is likely to have, on farmers and suppliers, but also chefs and consumers, we spoke to British Meat Processing Association leader Nick Allen and Bruce Rennie, the chef owner of hyper-seasonal, local-supporting, acclaimed restaurant, The Shore in Penzance, Cornwall. 

As it stands, Nick explained, "we're not going to get a lot of protection from the UK government," as "they're more interested in getting trade deals signed."

"The protection that a lot of the farming industry hoped they were going to get from all of this is not going to be there." 

Nick believes that there is a dawning realisation from the UK government "that they haven't quite got the free hand that they thought they had.

"I was always cynical about that," he said, "but in the industry people are catching up with it." 

"The UK industry is going to have to fight hard to survive." 

A comparison of animal welfare standards
on Australian vs. British farms
Source: RSPCA


Farmers and government could work together

As the hospitality industry has learned in the past year, industry needs to have strong representation in government in order for its interests to be served.

"In this Brave New World," Nick said, "the government and industry need to work closer together. But there's no sign yet that the civil servants or politicians have any great desire to involve the industry." 

"When the Australians, and the New Zealanders and the Americans come for their trade deals, they arrive with all the practitioners. The UK government don't do that, they just go and negotiate in their own right without real understanding of what the challenges are." 

The Australian deal was met with shock and horror among the British farming community, he said, because "we're not going to let that much tonnage in here, but if you're going to ship from the other side of the world, you're only going to ship top-quality stuff." 

Citing the example they gave in talks with government, he said, "a container of carcass meat, if that represented the whole animal, that would represent sixty animals. Times that by a thousand, that doesn't sound like much of a threat. 

"But if that container is full of sirloins, that's equivalent to a thousand animals," he explained, "and that takes the top off the market, because that is where all the profit margins are. 

"If those sirloins were fillets, it would be 3,000 animals. And it goes on up. You could very quickly get to a point where 1,000 tonnes, which the government would say is only 1 percent, multiplies up to being 20 percent of the quality material, and that really does make an impact on the market."

"There's no-one there in the room pointing that out to them, and there's an element of 'do they really care?'" 

"The UK farming industry has got a fight on its hands and it's a fight for surivival."

Two-lane farming and a classist food system 

"Some people might say that it's a change for good," Nick said, "because you'll get more decent product, more local produce will survive because they may be able to do it, but the mainstream will suffer - it just won't be competitive with other parts of the world." 

To the original point made in a panel debate hosted by TSC last year, Bruce said, "it's pushing domestic prices up - and the government isn't too interested in what we have in this country. It showed with the fishermen down here as well," he added, "they promised something, but it feels like it was more political showmanship than true promises shown out." 

With the grants to buy out farmers who want to get out of the industry, incentives to lure new blood in and change the face of British farming with environmentally sound, technologically-advanced systems, Nick said:  "I think they will introduce high welfare standards on British farming, I have no doubt that in this country we will have to comply to a much higher standard - but will they impose that on imports? No." 

And as a consequence, he said, as a country "we'll probably end up farming in a very environmentally-friendly way, to quite a high standard of welfare, but how much of that there'll be and how competitive that will be, I don't know.

"And in the meantime they'll say 'well, we've got to feed the nation, so we'll just import it. And you cannot impose those welfare issues on other countries," he said, not least because there would be no means to police best practice.

The likelihood now is that the rich will feast on Britain's best produce, while others will have access only to low-quality, cheap imports.

"The wealthy will have their own supply chains, butchers, top-end restaurants. It will be a preserve of the wealthy, and the mainstream will be from wherever in the world they can produce it cheapest." 

One step forward three steps back

Both believe that in the past year, Britons have shown that they have turned to cooking with fresh, good quality produce, which benefits the environment, upholds high welfare standards and puts money in the pockets of British producers.

But as with any gain, it can still be lost, as Nick said, "that appreciation has been brushed to one side," in our external trade deals. And there are so many opportunities being missed because we're going down a different path." 

"It feels like people are being conned and sleepwalking into a real decline of food production in this country," and meanwhile, he added, "the soundbites are, 'oh no, no, we're raising food standards." 

How is this reduction in mainstream food standards reflected in restaurants?

While the British consumer may be more savvy than in the past, for Bruce, marketers capitalise on our biggest weakness. "We know we're being lied to, and yet we still buy what they're selling."

"People are willing to overlook things for the sake of convenience," he said, "because let's face it, when you're busy, it's tough to go to the farm shop to buy stuff."

And this has an impact on the public's willingness to spend extra money on meals on the basis of a high quality of product. Not only does quality come at a cost, but with Brexit, domestic prices have risen hugely, to the point where the chef finds it impossible to make money on his menu. 

"Fish prices have doubled," using example of local mackerel he buys for The Shore, caught two miles away yet sold for £20/kilo. "It's ludicrous," he said. 

Nick added that while "it's great for farmers on the face of it, because land prices and beef prices are sky high, they've priced themselves out of the market." 

In Bruce's opinion, what we're likely to see in the restaurant industry, "is that there's going to be a lot more cheaper eats and quick offerings, because it's the only way you make profits." 

What can we do?

"Everyone needs to understand what is happening," Nick said, as the discrepancy between what we're being told - i.e., we're going to have the most environmental standards in this country, we're going to have the highest welfare standards in this country, he said, "yeah, we probably will have, but it will only be the very wealthy who will be able to buy that sort of food." 

"If that's what everyone wants, fine, but I don't think that's what everyone wants." 

 "You just want everyone to see the reality of it," he said. "but my goodness this government is really good at smoke and mirrors." 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 16th June 2021

'British farming is going to have to fight very hard to survive'