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Dossier: Could opening up the UK to meat from other continents end the Great British farm?

Sheep on a farm in the Brecon Beacons, Wales Sheep on a farm in the Brecon Beacons, Wales SHUTTERSTOCK/SteveD_NP3
09 Sep
2021
Mark Rowe asks whether opening up the UK to meat from other continents will spell the end of British farming as we know it

The year is 2035 and, with the final removal of all tariffs on Australian meat imports to the UK, the Jones family in Chester sits down to a Sunday roast of beef reared on Anna Creek Station in South Australia. With an area of 15,746 square kilometres it is more than half the size of Belgium (and that’s not taking into account the adjoining ranches owned by the same family). Just a few miles down the A55 in Wales, one of the few remaining Welsh family farms that rear sheep is preparing its highwelfare animals for processing into organic pies, sold at a premium price to a niche market.

Improbable? Follow the logic of the recent free trade agreement (FTA) between the UK and Australia, and this could well be where the UK farming sector winds up. Many farmers fear that they’ve been thrown to the wolves in the eager pursuit of post-Brexit trade deals and that the agreement with Australia is just the start of a process that will see similar deals secured with New Zealand and the mighty meat exporters of the USA, Brazil and Argentina.

The outcome is uncertain. The negative view is that farming will wither on the vine. A more optimistic slant suggests that the FTA offers UK farming an unprecedented opportunity to not just export to the world, but to make nature-friendly farming widespread within the UK, to reverse decades of declines in bird and insect populations, and rejuvenate biodiversity more widely. What’s indisputable is that British farming faces its largest upheaval since the end of the Second World War.

TRADE WITH AUSTRALIA

The response of the UK farming sector to the FTA with Australia has been almost universally negative. Trade in meat between the two countries is currently small, with 0.15 per cent of all Australian beef exports going to the UK, to the value of £4.1 million. The deal allows it to grow significantly. The quota for Australian beef allowed into the UK market will rise from 35,000 tonnes to 110,000 tonnes a year and from 25,000 tonnes to 75,000 tonnes for sheep meat. In reality, this allows the Australian meat sector to export as much meat as it possibly can to the UK.

UK farmers fear that they won’t be able to compete on price with Australian livestock farmers. In particular, hill farmers in Wales, the north of England and Scotland would be unable to match the economies of scale applied in Australia, where eight of the world’s ten largest farms are located. Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), described the advantages given to Australia as ‘incredibly significant’ and warned the government not to undermine British farming.

‘A lot of our overheads are down to our long winters and having to feed cattle indoors,’ says Wyn Evans, who farms 89 hectares of upland with 400 breeding ewes and 80 cattle near Aberystwyth. ‘Much is made of Australia’s problems with extreme climate, but a good deal of it is extremely favourable. They can keep their cattle out all year. We can grow grass, but it’s expensive and our farm sizes are so much smaller.’

Another concern for British farmers is that vast land holdings aren’t the only advantage for their Australian counterparts. The RSPCA highlights the fact that Australian pigs are kept in confined sow stalls, which are banned in the UK; sheep are subjected to mulesing, a painful procedure that’s illegal in the UK in which folds of skin and flesh are cut off without anaesthetic to prevent flystrike; and farmers use hormone growth promoters, pesticides and feed additives that are banned in the UK. Similar methods are used in other countries that expect to reach equivalent deals with the UK.

Geographical 2021 09 AnimalWelfareMapStandards for animal welfare vary significantly around the world, as this map demonstrates via a selection of countries that are also some of the largest meat exporters. As is evident, practices that violate widely accepted international standards on animal welfare are used, or at least not deemed illegal, in numerous countries. These practices include barren battery cages, sow stalls, hormone-fed beef, hot branding and mulesing. The UK has some of the highest welfare standards in the world, while Australia is among the least prohibitive. The data used here were assembled by the RSPCA.

The deal has also attracted the ire of the Soil Association, which is no fan of British intensive farming but fears that the FTA could heap more pressure on wildlife-friendly systems by prompting farmers to simply sell up. ‘The risk is that some farmers will simply go out of business as they won’t be able to compete,’ says Rob Percival, the Soil Association’s head of policy. 

A similar worry is expressed by Martin Lines of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, who adds that ‘there’s a concern that free trade could deliver lower standards and prices and UK farmers are forced to follow that.’

When imports are sourced through equivalent standards, they should be welcomed, suggests Lines, but he questions whether this would be the case. ‘If a product made overseas is cheaper and comes with a lighter carbon footprint and is made to the same or higher standards than ours, then I haven’t got a problem,’ he says. ‘But if the cheaper price is achieved by lower standards and damage to biodiversity, then you can’t defend that.’

For others, a brutal political reality lies behind the FTA. ‘Trade agreements always have winners and losers,’ says Sean Rickard, former chief economist at the NFU. ‘The losses in this deal are laid squarely on agriculture. The government views the UK’s strengths to lie in IT, electronics and other sectors. Agriculture has been sacrificed because the government deems it worth less than other parts of the economy. The significance won’t be seen instantly, but within ten to 15 years, this will lead to a slimmed-down UK farming sector. There just won’t be as many farmers.’

shutterstock 347546873Space is an advantage for Australian farmers, as this ranch in South Australia demonstrates. Image: Australian Camera

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As well as economic consequences for UK farmers, there’s the spectre of social shifts, which run deeper than food production alone. Some fear that the FTA may rip the heart and soul from an industry based upon a tradition of family farms. ‘Most people, especially those who aren’t so well off, will buy the cheapest meat,’ says Evans, who is also livestock board chairman at NFU-Cymru. ‘This will undermine our domestic production. It’s not only a threat to farmers and individuals but to the culture and language of Wales. The family farms of Wales are the base of our culture. If we lose our young people – if they go elsewhere – then you lose that deep connection we have here to the land. That goes back 200 years or more, it verges on a tribal feeling.’

PUBLIC MONEY FOR PUBLIC GOOD

But perhaps with change also comes opportunity. While being exposed to the harsh winds of free trade, UK farming is also adjusting to a post-Brexit world in which subsidies based on production and size of land holdings (as per the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP) are being replaced by the concept of ‘public money for public good’. While yet to be clarified, the idea is that state payments will incentivise farmers to farm in ways that secure better air and water quality, higher standards of welfare for animals and implement measures to curb flooding.

It sounds laudable, but Percival from the Soil Association admits that he finds it difficult to reconcile the FTA with the government’s talk of addressing the climate crisis and nature. ‘The government had been making all the right noises about wildlife and farming, but the “Green Brexit” talk has been undercut by this,’ he says.

Evans, the Aberystwyth farmer, is even more blunt: ‘In this new green world we’re supposed to be living in, I don’t see how we’re environmentally friendly if we send food to the other side of the world when we could sell it here or into Europe.’

Like many environmentalists, Percival does welcome the UK’s departure from the CAP. ‘The principle of public money for public good is sound; payment for environmental outcomes is a very good thing,’ he says. Yet he suggests that the UK government remains torn between trade and the environment. ‘There is a clear understanding of the nuances of farming in more naturefriendly ways, but there’s an ideological split [in the government] and it seems the free-trade camp has won for now. If Brexit is based on an ideology of opening up Britain to the world, then it drives you to a place where you sign deals like the one with Australia. There’s been a trend towards intensification in [farming] pigs and chickens in this country and, to a lesser extent, dairy and these FTAs will move us even more in that direction.’

THE WHOLE FARM CONCEPT

Proponents of the concept of ‘public money for public good’ believe that the approach will only work if farmers embrace a whole-farm approach. There’s little point, they argue, in farming in a more nature-friendly way in one field and running along traditional lines in the next. Martin Lines’s farm in south Cambridgeshire may offer a template. Lines has introduced 300 sheep and has plans to establish cattle in the coming years across his holdings of 540 hectares. They will graze around newly planted trees and, in the autumn, eat cover crops such as vetches (which are excellent at fixing, or incorporating, nitrogen into soil), sunflowers and mustard. The vision is of regenerative agriculture. ‘Farming with nature is more profitable; nature gives you free goods,’ says Lines. ‘The cover crops provide nutrients for the soil and do the work of a tiller, so I don’t need to turn the soil over. The livestock are providing the fertiliser from their backsides; the greater insect life includes predatory insects that eat the pests, so I save money on fertilisers and pesticides, and we also get more birdlife. You have to do this across the whole farm – you can’t just create little pockets for wildlife and stay the same in your other fields.’ In short, Lines believes that he will get more value and more production out of the same amount of land without being more intensive; his farm holdings will be more secure and less dependent on the safety net of subsidies.

Others believe that the concept of public money for public good can help boost a market for British food products that compete, if not on price, then on other metrics against global competitors. ‘There’s a great opportunity to farm in a way that shows our quality and welfare standards, and environmental protection,’ says Lines. ‘Welsh lamb can’t compete on the world market by itself, but lamb that’s produced with care and where the environment is enhanced – Welsh lamb burgers, or pies with Highland beef – can. A number of people will value Welsh lamb if it’s processed and promoted in a certain way.’

Evans, too, is alive to the fact that, as he puts it, ‘we do have that card up our sleeves’. Positively, he adds, ‘great improvements have been made in recent years, with more hedgerows planted and the widening of field boundaries. We can sell the story that our food is produced to the highest environmental standards and that it’s a class product.’

The Scottish-whisky model is what Evans and others have in mind. The biggest UK export sector bar none, Scottish whisky’s export values range from £3.8 billion to £5 billion a year. Yet as Evans points out, ‘the basic raw ingredients [barley or rye, water and yeast] don’t have a competitive global market value, but put them together into a product called whisky and you have something you can put a real price on. We need to do that, even if our products are more niche.’

shutterstock 1018279972A calf is branded on a farm in Oregon, USA, where the practice is legal. Image: Bob Pool

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BEST OF BOTH

Is it really possible for British farming to become both more productive and more nature friendly? Percival says that some land can be farmed more usefully and still be relatively intensive, yet better for nature. He points to the 50 per cent of arable land used to grow animal feed, such as that for chicken, as counter-productive. ‘It’s not about being more intensive, but using our land more wisely,’ he says.

The Nature Friendly Farming Network’s Lines also believes that there’s a need to move away from a grain-fed system of farming. ‘We’re not using our landscapes to feed the nation,’ he says. ‘We need to move away from feed production [for livestock].’

Such a shift implies a need to eat less meat, but Lines emphasises that this doesn’t mean eradicating meat production altogether. Instead, he envisages a subtle shift in the locations where livestock is reared. Typically, but not universally, livestock is reared to the north and west of the Tees-Exe line. This imaginary demarcation between the River Tees in the north-east and the River Exe in Devon roughly separates upland Britain from the arable croplands of lowland Britain to the south and east. Under a more nature-friendly approach to farming, Lines sees sheep and cattle moving from the west and the north to the east, and being reared on land where animal feed was previously exclusively planted. ‘We may even see a small increase in the number of livestock,’ he says.

‘Science can deliver higher food production and better environmental standards; they aren’t mutually exclusive,’ Rickard insists. ‘We can get more production out of smaller areas of land and release other areas for growing trees.’ He points to more productive and sustainable farming methods such as low- or no-till farming. ‘They don’t disturb the soil, they increase nutrients in the soil, prevent erosion, prevent water loss and increase crop yields.’

Lines sees a world where farmers who reduce their carbon footprint, increase bird numbers, slow river flows and improve soil health become classified as farming in a net-zero fashion. He argues that they should be incentivised and rewarded by carbon-trading systems. In effect, Lines would sell his net carbon into a carbon ‘grid’, where businesses that can’t reduce their footprint can buy credits, in the way that the aviation, cement and steel sectors of industry currently do.

Not all farmers will be enticed by such a prelapsarian vision. Farmer Evans finds it difficult to see past the practicalities. ‘If a farmer gets paid to plant trees on his land, what do you think happens? That may be good for nature and he may get payments, but there’s pretty much nothing more to do for 40 years. The farmer’s son isn’t going to hang around – he’ll move elsewhere for a job that’s more enticing. We want an industry to hand over to the next generation. There are some cracking young people in farming and we can’t let them down.’

The issue that will most likely determine whether or not such a scenario unfolds is food affordability. Are more-ethically produced animal products truly marketable at scale in a cost-conscious world, or are they destined only to secure a foothold in a small niche market? ‘We need to communicate to our market the difference in our meat products compared to how they are produced elsewhere in the world,’ says Lines. ‘The supermarkets are looking for regenerative farming products – we know that the supply chain cares.’

Rickard believes that there’s a substantial potential international market for such an approach. ‘The number of middle-class people with an element of disposable income to spend on higher-quality food is projected to rise to more than four billion by 2030,’ he says. ‘They do look for quality in food – and variety.’

Not everyone is middle class, however, and not every middle-class person will be so minded. ‘We know a percentage of the population can’t afford quality food,’ admits Lines. Evans also feels that equitable access to good food is non-negotiable.

‘We have to emphasise our environmental credentials and I don’t have a problem with ideas that benefit the environment,’ he says. ‘We can target more affluent people, but we also need to be able to target the poorest parts of society. They should be able to afford and eat the best food, too.’

Percival is doubtful that the concept of credence attributes will be enough on its own to keep farmers working in a nature-friendly way. ‘Novel export opportunities will provide some farmers with a lifeline,’ he says, ‘but high-quality products remain fairly niche. Across the board, the food market is price driven.’

A more sympathetic way of farming needs to be aligned with wider societal changes according to Vicki Hird, head of sustainable farming at Sustain. ‘The question of affordability is a societal one,’ she says. ‘Many people are badly paid, on zero-hours contracts and are left with little choice but to eat poorly, so of course they’ll go for the 99p processed pie. It’s not about making food cheaper, it’s about making jobs more secure. Investing more in healthier eating and in people’s ability to pay for it saves money in the long term. It leads to better health outcomes, less pressure on the NHS.’ The status quo, Hird argues, is wrong-headed. ‘There needs to be a stronger culture of eating good food. At the moment, that culture is driven by the food industry’s desire to sell us marketable and profitable products, which means more junk, more sugars and oils.’ Meanwhile, she points out with frustration, organics are purposely pushed at the higher end of the market as more exclusive and aspirational.

shutterstock 517244329Soya beans in a trailer, ready for export. Image: Fotokostic

SOYA ALTERNATIVES

The use of soya beans to feed livestock raises some tricky issues. Soya is heavily implicated in rainforest deforestation, so its importation to feed British livestock is often cited as one of the worst examples of environmentally harmful international trade. Yet if grown in the UK, soya is a monoculture that contributes to a lack of field diversity and takes up valuable space.

‘Soya is hard to beat nutritionally. And although it can be grown in the UK in certain areas, it’s unlikely to be in the volumes needed,’ says Jerry Alford, arable and soils advisor at the Soil Association. But there could be alternatives. Farmers have been working with the Organic Research Centre in a field trial run through Innovative Farmers. Rather than feeding livestock with soya, the trials explored the use of sprouting wheat and vetch seeds; saving grain tailings; and increasing the nutritional value of beans through heat treatment and dehulling. Toxins found in vetch seeds affect egg-laying frequency and size in chickens, but the trial found that this can be overcome by allowing the vetch seeds to germinate before feeding them to livestock.

‘As an organic producer, we already receive a premium for our pigs, but if we can produce them free of imported soya and using UK-grown rations, then we can add further value,’ says Sam Wade, an organic pig producer based in Gloucestershire.

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SHIFTING MINDSETS

A cultural and educational shift needs to apply to farmers, too, argues Hird. ‘Over the past 50 years, farmers have been so encouraged to farm intensively that a lot of the institutional knowledge has gone when farmers have died. We need to build up that knowledge and understanding of the need to plant woodlands, shrubs, agro-forestry; of the principles of natural predator protection.’ This approach is more nuanced than the ‘either/or’ precepts implied by the FTA with Australia, she suggests. ‘The FTA suggests no middle ground – either farmers push for standards to be lowered here to match those overseas, or they turn their land into a nature reserve. Neither of those scenarios makes for a resilient farming industry.’

Rickard agrees that the practicalities on the ground are nuanced. ‘Every industry has its bad apples, but almost every farmer wants to farm in a way that benefits wildlife. They don’t say, “Give us the money or the blackbird gets it.” It doesn’t need to be so binary. We could be taking action to protect and promote the food and farming industry without in any way impeding the FTA. We can have environmental standards, produce high volumes of food and export. It’s not one or the other.’

However, Percival remains unsure whether this portrayal of farmers is entirely accurate. ‘Unless farmers are encouraged and the right payments are made, it won’t work,’ he asserts. ‘Payments need to cover a whole-farm approach – otherwise, some farmers may put one corner of their land aside but keep farming as normal on the remainder.’

Reducing food production at home to make farms more nature friendly could also have long-term global negative effects, as imports could come from water-stressed countries that are harming their own environment to feed the UK. ‘We can’t simply export our food footprint in the way we’ve done with other sectors,’ says Lines. ‘We buy jeans from Asia that involve huge pollution of rivers by textile chemicals – we can’t have the same approach with farming and import food products with lower standards from abroad just so that we can say that our own industry is environmentally more rigorous. What’s the point of banning caged hens in the UK if we end up importing eggs from countries that use cages?’

It’s a fascinating time for farming in the UK. As Percival says, ‘It’s all to play for.’ However, on balance, he’s optimistic. ‘Even though the Australia deal takes us off at an unlikely tangent, things change, politics changes. There’s a broad consensus that we have to reverse the degradation of soils and the loss of wildlife.’

Ultimately, Lines believes that farmers have to live with the physical and political landscapes they’re given. ‘We need to stop moaning and provide answers,’ he says. ‘Some businesses are just pushing back against change and expecting to be propped up – but if you aren’t delivering a profitable business, then you can’t ask people to prop you up. A system where we don’t need subsidies, where we lead change, has real opportunities.’

A sustainable-farming expert, Hird firmly believes that creative farmers will flourish, but she’s far from certain about the long-term outcome. ‘I do fear the government policy on international trade – it does make me nervous,’ she says. ‘Yet at the same time, I take heart from the number of innovative farmers who are looking at doing things differently.’

Farming has been at such a crossroads before, notes Evans. ‘This isn’t the first time that British farming has been thrown to the global market,’ he says, pointing to the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, which opened Britain to free trade for cereals. ‘It took farming 80 years to recover from that and the country was later caught out at the start of the Second World War as we had to import two thirds of our food. If we take our eye off the ball, we will leave ourselves vulnerable again. I don’t have an issue with free trade, but it has to be fair. We have to keep banging on the table and asking questions of government.

HOW TO MARKET WELSH MEAT

Since 2002, the Welsh Lamb and Welsh Beef brands have been protected with a PGI (Protected Geographical Indication). In addition, a dedicated body, Hybu Cig Cymru/Meat Promotion Wales, has been tasked with emphasising the distinctiveness of Welsh livestock produce. ‘Our farms and landscapes are not ranches – we don’t have that economy of scale – but that is the gem of the thing,’ says Gwyn Howells, chief executive of Hybu Cig Cymru. ‘We have hedgerows and trees, a wonderful landscape and animals reared within it. These are credentials that can resonate with consumers who are discerning.’

Hybu Cig Cymru is in the middle of a five-year programme that promotes the ethics of the supply chain and focuses on animal health, genetics and meat quality. Ideally, such an approach would be boosted with legislation that requires hotels, pubs and other hospitality operations to label the origin of the meat they sell. ‘The FTA means that cheap meat could be used across that sector,’ says Howells. ‘If you buy steak and chips for £10, you can guarantee that it’s from abroad. Having a requirement to say where it comes from, so you could say the meat is from Wales, would make a difference.’

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR MONTHLY PRINT MAGAZINE!
Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!

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