AGRICULTURE has long been an afterthought on political agendas, but the post-Brexit treatment of a once-cherished and loved industry has become one of the UK and Scottish government’s greatest betrayals to date.
Brexit was sold to farmers as an opportunity to free industry from the archaic and bureaucratic system of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy – which for many years stifled innovation and directed funds to big landowners earthlings and slippers, rather than active farmers. .
Yet a year later, English farmers are preparing for a future where direct support for food production is cut and achieving environmental results is their only viable option.
Scottish farmers, meanwhile, lack clarity on future support for farming and are awaiting guidance from an SNP government solely concerned with aligning with EU principles – to enable a smoother climb to EU membership if a referendum on independence is won.
Agriculture has become a political pawn, and the livelihoods of industry are collateral damage, in the long-term strategies of the country’s leaders.
The powers that be have forgotten the importance of food production and the contribution that farmers play, not only in feeding the nation, but also in conserving the landscapes that are the backdrop for a thriving tourism industry, providing a home to much of the UK’s wildlife and ensuring the survival of many rural communities and our rich cultural heritage.
In Scotland, the government is complicit in the loss of critical mass in agriculture by pushing ambitious tree-planting targets, as part of its green agenda, which sometimes come at the expense of rural areas. Incentives offered to plant trees have contributed to soaring land prices as farmers struggle to secure land for agricultural production against those seeking to turn the countryside into forests.
While their tree planting program has been ambitious, their implementation of a new policy for the future of Scottish farming has been sorely lacking.
Andrew McCornick was head of Scotland’s biggest farm lobbying body, NFU Scotland, during the build-up to and aftermath of Brexit and publicly challenged the government for its inaction.
“Governments determine policy, not focus groups, but the SNP government has produced many documents from many groups over the years and should be fully aware of where the industry needs to go and how,” he said. -He underlines.
“They all have merit, but it seems to end there. There is a lack of delivery – just an opportunity to start another band. I’ve said it before, stop procrastinating and start delivering – the facts are in front of you.
“I think we are getting closer to developing an agricultural policy for Scotland, but it needs to be tested in practice, otherwise the unintended consequences, such as cover forestry, regeneration or carbon offsetting, could become destructive to local farms, crofts, businesses and vendors, undermining the economy and viability of the community around them.
Although south of the border tree-planting targets fall short of Scotland’s ambitions, the UK government is waging its own unique campaign to turn farmers into park rangers, who must be paid to plant trees. hedgerows, protect our waterways and improve our air quality. , with food production being only a by-product of their activities.
Mr McCornick describes the policy as “a grand moral vision with no impact assessment on industry or the economy and which seems to have been concocted by people behind comfortable desks and out of touch with the reality on the ground. In Scotland, we are promised jam tomorrow because there is no policy yet, just targets to be achieved on climate, environment, biodiversity and the Scotland Food and Drink ambition for 2030, but no roadmap on the way.
“The two administrations lack vision on food security and the local and national economy. Despite the pandemic, there is an opportunity to build on our strengths, but politicians seem to be the problem rather than the solution.
Post-Brexit, the UK government has been so blinded by its desire to gain geopolitical influence through trade deals that it is deliberately neglecting its commitment to ensuring that future imports from global agricultural exporters meet strict standards of well-being and food that it imposes. Farmers.
Mr McCornick sat on the first Trade and Agriculture Committee (TAC) which made recommendations on the conduct of trade negotiations to the UK government – which however appear to have been largely ignored so far – in the to ensure fairness for farmers and consumers regarding imports. .
“Being advisory, there is no teeth in the statutory terms of the TAC, nor parliamentary oversight other than via the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act [CRAG], which is only a 21 sitting day review period and not an open debate,” Mr. McCornick explained.
“It was designed as a basic approval process for EU trade deals that had been debated in Brussels. It’s like the cart before the horse – do the trick and then [do] limited review.
Harrowing scenes from foot and mouth disease 2001
The British government may be pushing ahead with its overseas trade campaign, but closer to home it is ignoring trade frictions with the EU.
The UK continues to cede its advantage by delaying controls on imports from Europe, but UK exports continue to face cumbersome bureaucracy and exorbitant costs to cross the Channel.
A boastful Brexit campaign to regain control has been empty words as UK farmers – who already face tighter margins due to soaring input costs – now navigate rules of the unequal game in competition with their nearest neighbor. It is a shocking betrayal of British business.
Yet a greater betrayal could yet materialize if the lack of adequate veterinary checks at the border allowed a deadly swine disease to cross our shores and potentially expose the country to another global pandemic.
African swine fever is sweeping the EU, wiping out herds of pigs, and the UK government is playing with fire by allowing retailers to continue importing meat from countries where the disease has been identified.
A disease with a fatality rate approaching 100% and which has already claimed the lives of a third of the world’s pigs since 2019, has the potential to wipe out the entire UK pig herd.
Scottish Pig Producers chief executive Andy McGowan said: “There is no vaccine for this disease, so the tactics used to control foot-and-mouth disease in 2001 are the only options, should it emerge in Scotland.”
The smell of burning livestock and the columns of black smoke visible for miles should touch those who remember this dark time for farmers across the country.
“It is spreading rapidly in mainland Europe, with Italy reporting its first case in a wild boar last week,” McGowan added.
“This is of particular concern to us as the UK is Italy’s second largest export market outside the EU, mainly in the form of charcuterie products in which the virus can lie dormant for up to six months. month.”
What’s more, according to Professor Dirk Pfeiffer of the Royal Veterinary College, “this is the biggest outbreak of animal disease in history”.
A Parma ham sandwich tossed in a park, forest or beach, if picked up by wild boars – found in parts of Scotland – could transmit the disease to domestic pigs – just like the feeding pigs with contaminated food scraps.
Mr McGowan added: “Our island geography should offer us strong protection against the virus, but only if we control our borders. The UK government has repeatedly delayed imposing veterinary health certification and controls on animal products since we left the EU.
“‘Take Back Control’ was the Brexit slogan, so it seems frankly bizarre that the UK government instead seized the opportunity to remove all import controls.”
The UK government must start heeding industry warnings of this impending disaster and take immediate action to reciprocate import controls and stop this disease in its tracks.
British farmers have been repeatedly betrayed by governments in recent years, despite being portrayed as heroes during the pandemic for turning the wheels of food production in the face of countless challenges.
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of food security and strong and resilient food chains that can overcome one hurdle after another.
This cannot be forgotten in the months and years to come, but must serve as an important reminder that our food supply must be valued and that future policy must support it. Protecting our farmers cannot be an afterthought.