Pride and populism leaves British agriculture floundering in post-Brexit era

Author: Michael Brady

In 2005 I attended a UK Nuffield Farming Scholar event at The Farmers Club in Whitehall, the political heart of London.

The after-dinner speech was given by Baroness Byford, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, who served as opposition parliamentary spokesman for Food, Farming and Rural Affairs from 1997 to 2007.

The Baroness extoled the virtues of British agriculture, extending her praise to those present from afar, particularly those from the Commonwealth countries.

I was familiar with British farming as I had worked in their Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food (MAFF) as a dairy advisor from 1997-1989 with their equivalent of Teagasc.

I knew Britain only produced 59% of the food required to feed its then population of 60.4 million people (65.2million people today). I also knew how proud they are about their colonial history, their winning role in two World Wars and their military involvement in most conflicts around the globe.

However, I was confused as to why they did not support and take better care of their farmers. The farmers I met and advised on a daily basis bemoaned poor profitability due to a cheap food policy and environmental legislation this I might add was UK government policy not EU policy at the time.

In my mind being able to feed your own nation is surely the first line of defence for a military power like Great Britain so I mustered up the courage to ask the Baroness why Britain wasn’t self-sufficient in food.

Following a brief questioning of my bone fides, the Baroness gave me a clear and concise answer. She stated the United Kingdom is a union of over 60 million people and has just over 200,000 farmers: ‘I am a politician – who votes me into power Mr Brady?’ I shrank back into my seat – I had gotten my answer.

The pride and populist politics of an all-conquering nation was more important than feeding its own people. Over 10 years later, Brexit is another example of British pride and populist politics overtaking the needs of its own people.

What will Brexit mean for Irish farmers? The immediate effect is the weakness in sterling – in simple terms, Irish farmers will get less euros for beef, milk, pork, chicken and vegetables sold into the UK. Over 50% of our beef and 60% of cheese are sold into the UK therefore beef and milk processors will feel an immediate pinch which I am sure they will pass onto farmers.

Just under a quarter of liquid milk in Ireland comes over the border from Northern Ireland – this statistic always fascinates me given our claims that we can produce milk cheaper than dairy farmers in the UK.

If sterling stays weak the Northern liquid milk producers will cause southern dairy farmers more grief if they are allowed to sell over the new EU border in whatever trade agreement is eventually signed.

The other big fear for Irish farmers is a cut in the CAP budget and there is speculation that the Basic Payment Scheme, TAMS and GLAS payments could be reduced by 5-12pc.

The reality, though, is that nobody knows what’s going to happen markets and economies after Brexit. We can all speculate and have an opinion, but there are just too many variables and unknowns to make any accurate predictions.

The British have voted to leave the European Union without knowing what they voted to get into. This realisation may force them to swallow their pride and have another referendum which many believe would return a Remain majority.

We have survived currency and economic crises before. People still need to eat and we can competitively produce food with most nations in the world so perhaps this is a great opportunity for Irish agriculture.

To conclude, in the words of the great British leader Winston Churchill, we should “never let a good crisis go to waste”.