Neil Carmichael (pictured)
Former Member of Parliament, Farmer and Senior Adviser, PLMR
As the UK is on the cusp of great change, the agricultural community is one of the industries that will be most affected. We need to look at the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
The All Party Parliamentary Group for Farming was established precisely because of the need for the farming industry – as a whole – to be recognised as a holistic, complex and significant sector of the UK economy. This is now especially crucial as Brexit looms large, bringing uncertainty and many challenges to a once secure and protected industry.
Balancing public good and protecting the environment
Within the Group, we are looking to do more than simply increase production of food. These days, our consideration is far broader – the environment in which we are producing food must be protected and enhanced for the greater public good. In fact, protecting and enhancing the environment are now priorities. This contrasts with the earlier decades of UK participation in the Common Agricultural Policy, where increasing production of most commodities was the primary objective.
The influence of regulation
Another consideration is the pattern of trade beyond the European Union. In short, this is, in part, influenced by regulatory agendas – including animal health, attitudes to new technologies and other sometimes obscure protectionist measures – and, as Brexit moves to the next phase, the leveraging of trade interests.
The implementation of the Agriculture Bill
The Agriculture Bill has been going through Parliament, but its ultimate fate will be determined by the outcome of the General Election. The Group has already commented on the Bill, which is, largely, an enabling measure with a raft of secondary legislation anticipated, but this measure cannot be taken in isolation from other steps, including trade negotiations.
The question of productivity
At least three themes must be developed. Firstly, there is the question of productivity and, by extension, skills and training, and the deployment of technology. At its most basic, increased productivity would be measured by profit but a more sophisticated approach will be around striking the balance between output of consumables and impact on climate change. Here, new technologies are bound to play a part, either way. So, too, will the age profile and agility of the workforce.
The future EU/UK relationship
Second, trade policy. Questions already abound about the future relationship between the UK and the EU but, just as important, will be the demands of other economic blocks as agricultural produce is set against manufactured goods, services and, perhaps surprisingly, immigration policy.
Supporting local produce
Third, local markets and the ‘farmer in the community’. In recent years, there has been a huge boom in locally grown food and drink – real ales and ciders have taken off – and a we’ve seen consumers take greater interest in ‘the local farmer’. Policy will need to take this aspect of farming into account and, simultaneously, provide a framework for quality food at reasonable prices.
One thing is certain – everything is uncertain. This is why we need more understanding across government and, above all, by consumers of this industry, that is of fundamental importance to society.