Brexit no-deal threat to exports and sustainable farming

IN the archives of “Be careful what you wish for,” the unforeseen impacts and possibly catastrophic results of a no-deal Brexit for Britain’s organic sector will merit their own section. Many farmers, particularly small farmers fed up with the unbalanced and inherently unfair Common Agricultural Policy, voted to leave the EU. Keen followers of The Archers will know that Adam Macey, the environmentally concerned farmer son of Jennifer Aldridge, was one such.

But as the date of departure inexorably approaches, and the prospects for any kind of meaningful, let alone beneficial, deal seem as far away as ever, a powerful warning has come from Helen Browning, the Wiltshire-based farmer who is chef executive of the Soil Association.

Helen, who farms at Bishopstone, on the Wessex Ridgeway downs east of Swindon, has written an open letter to  Environment Secretary Michael Gove highlighting the negative impact already being caused to UK organic exporting businesses by the current Brexit uncertainty and warning of the long term fears for more sustainable agriculture in the UK.

In the letter, which was also sent to the Secretaries of State for Business (Greg Clark) and International Trade (Liam Fox), Helen cites the significant growth of the British organic market, now in its eighth consecutive year of growth (5.3% in 2018).

Mr Gove confirmed at the recent NFU Conference that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, recognition of UK organic certification by the EU was expected to cease overnight.

“This prospect is already having a serious impact on UK exporters as customers are looking to source supplies elsewhere to guarantee continuity. In the event of no-deal, there is the real prospect of a prolonged period during which organic exports to the EU could become impossible. It will be hard to win back the lost custom, and some UK businesses are already incurring costs as they take mitigating measures such as stockpiling materials.”

This, says Helen, not only represents serious financial challenges for the businesses concerned, but could damage “a significant and growing export sector and the potential for the UK to become an exemplar exporting nation based on the highest standards.”

The situation is undermining the confidence of UK organic farmers and producers, “who are at the forefront of delivering the transformation to sustainable agriculture which you have so compelling articulated. It compounds the uncertainty the entire farming sector is currently facing over their ability to export from April onwards, and the new tariff regime they will have to contend with.”

The Soil Association chief executive dismisses as “frankly unacceptable” a suggestion that the solution would be to market these premium, sustainable products as conventionally produced (and priced).

She asks Mr Gove to make three commitments:

“Firstly, to explore every avenue to ensure that there is no break in the ability of our organic producers and suppliers to export their products as they do now into the EU and world markets.

“Secondly, because this crisis is politically driven and cannot reasonably be regarded as a normal business challenge, to give reassurance that funding will be ringfenced to deal with the fallout and that compensation mechanisms will be developed to enable otherwise viable businesses to bridge to the time when this issue is resolved.

“Thirdly, to ensure that agri-environment applications and claims are expedited to ensure the cash flow impacts for organic farmers of a no deal are minimised, and if necessary review rates in order that those farmers are being properly rewarded for the public goods they provide. This will provide a degree of short-term cushioning from the economic impacts of an export crisis.”

Explaining that she is making the letter public, and is keen to meet Mr Gove to discuss how this issue can be resolved, Helen concludes: “There is a serious risk that the ambitions you have set out for a sustainable regeneration of our food and farming sectors will be seriously undermined and I urge you to provide commitments on these issues immediately.”

Fanny Charles

Pictured: Helen Browning on her farm. Photograph © David Blake