On the 23rd of June 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union 51.9% to 48.1%, a movement coined as Brexit. One major concern noted by farmers in the UK is the loss of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a policy in which farmers received subsidies from the EU towards their income. Farmers have noted that this income was widely used to increase the productivity on their farms as well as to support their livelihoods. A loss of these subsidies from the EU means an almost 50 – 60% reduction in the income of farming families and businesses in the UK. With an expected date of departure from the EU on the 29th of March 2019, there has been uncertainty from farmers about what their future and livelihoods will hold post-Brexit. This departure from the EU is a chance for the UK to reform the Agricultural Bill and bring back ownership and authority to those who make the UK’s food – UK farmers. Brexit is also an opportunity for the production, distribution, and consumption of better food for its communities by promoting small-scale farmers and agroecological farming practices. La Via Campesina, an international movement consisting of small-scale farmers and agricultural workers, defines food sovereignty as the people’s, Countries, or State Union’s right to define their agricultural and food policies by prioritising small-scale agriculture while also protecting the environment.
How Did the UK Get Here?
A post-Brexit research into the opinion of UK farmers found that those who voted to leave the EU were deeply dissatisfied with the bureaucratic processes of the EU government as well as the feeling of a loss of control and ownership over their livelihoods. One of the main concerns farmers brought up in the research was food sovereignty, specifically, the lack of say of what they can and cannot produce on their land. One farmer’s opinion on the issue of sovereignty speaks to the ideology of much of the ‘Leave’ community in the UK, “Britain should be governed by politicians elected by British people.” Farmers have also expressed frustration with the periodic decrease of their share of the EU budget, which was often coupled with more rules and regulations enforced by the EU. On the 23rd of June 2016, by voting to leave, UK farmers said goodbye to the European Union in the belief that UK agriculture will thrive and no longer be constrained by EU membership.
Uneven Balance of Trade & Dependence on the European Union
Until its departure from the European Union, the United Kingdom will have received an estimated 27 billion Euros from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The main objectives of CAP were to increase productivity through specialised technology, to stabilise the food markets in the EU, and to provide reasonably priced foods for human consumption. UK farmers received these European subsidies through CAP Basic Payment Schemes and the Rural Development funding programmes. It has been reported that the UK government will be unlikely to match the subsidy amounts given by the European Union, and this reduction in farming income will significantly impact UK farmers until the government can come up with another viable solution.
One-third of the UK’s food is imported from its most significant trading partner – the EU. In 2015, 53% of the UK’s imports of goods and services were from the EU. In recent decades the UK’s rate of exports has declined, and its imports from other nations have increased, and as seen in Figure 1, the United Kingdom currently depends heavily on global markets.
Food Sovereignty: Agroecology and Small-Scale Farming as the Next Generation
Now is the greatest opportunity for the UK to support their local producers in providing healthy, nutritious, and good quality food to feed their communities by using agroecology and small-scale farming practices. Agroecology is the sustainable farming practice in which small-scale farmers use the available organisms in nature to improve the soil quality which in turn improves the quality of food for consumption. Agroecological farming differs from the current high-intensive farming practices (that uses more technology and degrades the land) by instead working with the natural landscape.
One might question if agroecological techniques and small-scale farming can produce enough food to feed the UK population compared to large industrial farms? First, it must be addressed that large farms with machinery does not equate to more food production. Research has shown that small-scale farmers produce equal, if not more, food yield compared to industrial farming. Notably, current large industrial farms produce one type of food crop (also known as monocropping), typically corn or wheat, at high yields, but small-scale farmers produce a variety of foods crops, at higher yields, on the land.
Agroecological farming is the better route to achieve food sovereignty in the UK than large-scale industrial farming. Agroecology and small-scale farming has been proven to be more energy efficient, safer and works harmoniously with the natural environment, has higher land productivity, and is resilient to shocks that may occur in the market (price volatility) or environment. Food sovereignty has been shown to significantly reduce the reliability on the unstable global markets, reduce landscape degradation, cease exacerbating climate change, and be resilient to high food pricing. By reforming the current Agricultural Bill to promote food sovereignty through small-scale farmers and agroecological techniques, the UK will be able to provide better quality food, increase food availability, preserve the landscape, reduce climate change, strengthen the domestic market, and for farmers: regain their self-identity as producers.