How would Brexit affect British Farming?

Craig Stirling, Investment Director at Quilter Cheviot - sponsors of the inaugural Countryfile Live -, shares their assessment of the debate.

“The media is awash with ‘Brexit’ commentary covering everything from the regulation of cabbage to Britain opening itself up to the world markets. We continue to be inundated with scare stories from both ‘In’ and ‘Out’ as the 23 June vote looms ever nearer. The agricultural sector is heavily regulated, and funded, by the EU through the Common Agricultural Policy, thus will be acutely affected by Brexit. Depending on whom you ask, this will vary from the collapse of British agriculture to Britain’s release from the ever-tightening grasp of the all-consuming EU.

So what are the ‘In’ campaigners saying? When you consider that, in 2015, British farmers received more than half of their income via EU subsidies you would be forgiven for anticipating nothing but a complete disaster for the industry following Brexit. A significant proportion of farmers in the UK have liabilities that exceed their total assets – if the ‘In’ campaign is to be believed when they claim that the removal of CAP subsidies would lead to a significant drop in the value of agricultural land, farmers could find themselves in a very sticky financial position. For sections of the industry that are already struggling to survive – dairy farms for instance, there could be major ramifications.

And what of the British food production industry and the many behemoth food and beverage companies headquartered in the UK. Would Associated British Foods, producer of the Dorset Cereal and Rivita brands, for example, continue to see the value of anchoring its operations in a country in which the cost of raw ingredients has sky rocketed following the withdrawal of significant EU farming subsidies?

George Eustice MP recently claimed that pigs would ‘vote leave’

A sudden halt of migration, reportedly one of the British public’s biggest concerns relating to Brexit, would undoubtedly damage a farming industry that relies heavily on the migrant labour market. If you were to ask a potato farmer in East Lothian, Cambridgeshire or Lincolnshire their views of Eastern European migrants, it would likely be a very favourable view indeed.

Of course, as we are made aware on a daily basis, there are two sides to this debate. The ‘Out’ campaigners continue to argue that Brexit would free the UK from the ever expanding, and continually restricting, mountain of EU regulation that, they say, strangles the industry. George Eustice MP, Minister of State for Farming, Food and the Marine Environment, recently claimed that pigs would ‘vote leave’ in reference to the EU directed practice of ‘docking’ pigs, the removal of their tails. Alongside the benefits to the long suffering British swine community, the Out campaigners argue that the economic benefits to British farmers are both obvious and numerous.

The fear of a swift and complete withdrawal of CAP subsidies is laughed off by the anti-EU crowd and branded as scaremongering. After all, Britain contributes well over £12bn a year to the European Union, of which around £3bn is returned in subsidies. Why can’t the government, free from EU funding burdens, continue to funnel that level of funding, if not more, to Britain’s farmers?

And what of the effect on the UK-based food producers? Out campaigners point to Australia as an example of an agricultural market with very little subsidy but a very successful food and grain export market, freed from the chains of excessive regulation. The Out campaign argues that Australian farmers and food producers are able to take advantage of a much more open world market than the closed and restricted EU.

The Out crowd’s vision is an Adam Smith-esque free market haven with British farmers and food producers exporting their goods to a world that has only been opened up to them thanks to Brexit. The sector would grow, farmers could set their own agenda and Britain would continue to succeed in a European market reliant on our trade whilst we excelled in an ever growing world market out of reach from within the EU. The economic benefits of a British-dictated free market would benefit investors, UK-based companies and the general public across the board as our economy grows following the release of the shackles that kept us tied in to a Eurozone that continues to falter.

On both sides of the equation, there are still many unknowns, despite a bid for clarity from some parties. The National Farmers’ Union, for instance, recently commissioned a report on the impact of Brexit on farming and the NFU Council has since passed a resolution stating, “On the balance of existing evidence available to us at present, the interests of farmers are best served by our continuing membership of the European Union.”

One thing that is certain is that active campaigners for both sides will continue to use the fear factor when it comes to trying to swing the public vote – interesting times indeed for Britain’s agricultural sector.”

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