Dr Alan Bullion, Special Reports and Projects Director, Agribusiness intelligence
Farming is worth around £5.4 billion to Kent’s economy, and supports over 85,000 jobs across the county. There are also now more than 40 brewers in Kent alone, and hops have seen a welcome revival in the ‘Garden of England’, with the return of organic Target hops, Bullion hops, and other varieties grown locally, which are increasingly popular in craft beer and real ale.
One of the most immediate impacts of the 2016 Brexit referendum result has been on labour from Eastern Europe, on which many local farms, veterinary practices and abattoirs still largely rely. As Chapel Down brewing and vineyard boss, Frazer Thompson, has said: “The biggest potential impact of Brexit is on agricultural labour. Kent has had eastern Europeans picking fruit in recent years, but we’ll all starve if the labour issue is not sorted after Brexit.”
Under a new government scheme, non-EU visas for up to 2,500 workers a year will last for just six months at a time. But the UK farm industry would still need about 90,000 seasonal workers a year by 2021, on top of over 250,000 permanent workers, more than 75% of whom come from EU countries. Around 20,000 of these work in Kent currently. And many have been put off from returning to Kent and other counties since the Leave vote in 2016.
Tory minister Andrea Leadsom has said that farm workers could be made redundant by robots, but a German strawberry picking machine currently costs £600,000. Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay also suggested that more British workers might be attracted to work beside “gorgeous East European women” on Kent farms. Clearly these are not serious solutions to the increasing farm labour shortage seen from Brexit.
It is also clear that British farmers are increasingly waking up to the wider impacts of Brexit, despite many voting to Leave at the time of the referendum. In an on-line audience poll at the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC), which I attended at the start of the new year, the audience were firmly against increased liberalisation that might compromise existing UK food and farm standards. 69% of delegates were concerned that UK welfare and environmental standards might slip in future UK trade deals. Delegates were also pessimistic that UK food exports would grow over the next five years, with only 41% saying yes, to 59% no. 67% of the audience also thought that the EU would continue to be the UK’s primary market for farm exports, as against 33% saying the Rest of the World (ROW).
In another OFC poll, following a speech from environment spokesman Michael Gove, 62% of delegates wanted to remain in the EU. Just 10% would favour a ‘No Deal’ on World Trade Organisation terms, while 38% would accept a deal on Prime Minister Theresa May’s current terms. 61% of the audience also disagreed that UK food and farming exports would increase over the next 5 years, but 76% were more confident that trade would grow over the next 25 years, reflecting both short-term uncertainty over Brexit, but longer-term optimism.
Clearly it is the case that the UK food and drink sector will remain heavily reliant on its trade with the rest of the EU. In the first six months of 2018 alone, global exports of UK food and drink reached £10.68 billion, up 5.1% on 2017, led by growth to the EU27. Growth in exports to EU countries (up 7.3%) outpaced those to non-EU countries (up 1.6%). The top five markets made up over half (52%) of overall food and drink exports, with exports to Ireland alone holding a share of 18.4%.
These figures above demonstrate why the UK farming unions are warning about the perils of a ‘No-Deal’ cliff-edge Brexit, with the likelihood of lorry parks at Dover full of perishable produce such as fruit and vegetables held up for days on end, and increased border checks for meat and livestock, but ultimately by far the best deal for the entire UK food and drink sector would be for us to Remain in the EU as a full member, and secure a People’s Vote.