The Class of 2017 & How the World Has Changed

Today I spoke to the new crop of UK Nuffield Scholars in London. The buzz I felt a year ago, when I started my own Nuffield journey, bubbled up again.

The world has changed so much in that time. What if someone had told me a year ago that Britain would vote to leave the European Union? That Donald Trump would be President of the United States? Would have I believed them? Probably not. Should I have? Absolutely.

I stuck around for a few hours to hear the other speakers – Allan Wilkinson, head of agriculture at HSBC and Sir Peter Kendall, chairman of AHDB. I wanted to see how the year’s events had changed them – or not.

Allan still has a tough love approach, which I remembered from his 2016 presentation. British farmers need to buck up their ideas, improve productivity and cash flow in their businesses and get ready for a rocky road ahead. Change is coming, he kept saying, and there’s no guarantee you’ll get subsidies to help you weather those changes. He talked as if direct payments had already been abolished – time to stand on your own two feet people and don’t even think about moaning about it! Only those with the stomach and gumption to take on a brave new world post-Brexit will survive.

He still believes the gap between the best and worst farmers has never been bigger and Brexit has magnified it. Citing Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest, only those with the lowest costs of production and a ‘can do’ attitude will come out on top.

“How many of you believe there will be opportunities for your businesses without subsidies? Hands up!” Most of the room put their hand up. I’m not surprised – it would have been hard to admit if your farm depended on subsidies in that room today.

Farmers, according to Allan, need to be pushed and incentivised to just get better. Red Tractor? Too soft. Not fit for purpose. He’d blowtorch the whole scheme given half the chance. Britain’s farmers need to strive for higher standards, they should be scrutinised more. Root out the weak and celebrate the strong! For there’s a cold wind coming, from a brisk Brexity direction.

Sir Peter Kendall took to the podium after Allan, with a slightly softer approach to subsidies. He was also kinder to the Red Tractor farm assurance scheme.

Sir Peter campaigned passionately for Remain. Despite saying he accepts the vote to leave and he’s committed to making it work, I think he’s still deeply bruised from the defeat.

He struggled to be optimistic about British agriculture’s prospects outside the EU. His biggest concern is not farm support, but trade. The idea of no tariff protection fills him with dread, fearing the UK could become a dumping ground for cheap imports. And the ‘they need us, more than we need them’ attitude to Europe doesn’t wash with him either.

He agreed with Allan that farmers’ attitudes must change. When direct payments come from Brussels the public sees that as ‘European money’. Post-Brexit, it will be their money. Our money. Money that could go to schools and hospitals. There will be limited sympathy. ‘Stop focusing on money,’ was his message – it makes us look bad!

On regulation, he warned that there would be no easing, or loosening, or backtracking. On the contrary, he believes it’s likely to go in the other direction as French importers, and their continental counterparts, ensure that products meet and exceed their own standards.

Neither Allan nor Sir Peter painted a particularly rosy picture of the next few years. If there were Leave voters in the room, as I’m sure there were, they must have been thinking one of two things:

What have I done? Was this a mistake?
Why are they being so negative? Why aren’t they promoting all the opportunities ahead of us?

For me it points to the contradictory message coming out of the confused and conflicted farming industry at the moment. On the one hand, demanding protection and support for internationally recognised high standards of environmental protection and animal welfare. A commitment to British food and self-sufficiency.

On the other hand, wanting to drive productivity, demanding access to new technologies, crop protection products and GMOs, deregulation and aiming to compete with the likes of the US and South America in commodity production.

These two ambitions do not sit very well together. One draws on our food producing heritage and tradition. Our reputation. Our public image. You can see us trading globally on the story of small family farms and animals grazing lush green fields, as Ireland has done so successfully. Downton Abbey meets Emmerdale.

The other ambition takes us down a road of increased productivity and efficiency, potentially with zero public support (I mean financial but could risk the public’s emotional support too). This will invariably lead to the intensification and consolidation of farms, people leaving the industry and our farming economy following in the footsteps of New Zealand, Australia and the USA. Low input, high output. Enviable in terms of business strategy, but possibly distrusted in the eyes of the public.

Until the industry can fix on what it wants – and not just money – it will go round in circles.

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