Theresa May’s disastrous election campaign only paid attention to Northern Ireland once, when she visited the Balmoral Show, an event which, at least on the surface, is the closest it’s possible to get in Northern Ireland to something that resembles an English county gathering. Well-scrubbed farming folk and well-scrubbed livestock, as reassuringly Unionist as its possible to get without going to a party rally, provided the safest of environments for someone who proved to be a hopelessly gormless campaigner and who was, additionally, utterly disengaged from the urgency of getting the Assembly up and running again.
In the midst of all the uncertainty about how Brexit will play out, agriculture, if you’re not involved in it yourself, can seem like a minority issue, only of interest to politicians in rural areas because farmers are voters, and of much diminished economic value in a developed western economy. We’re about to find out that this is not true. Brexit, if handled badly, will end with agriculture in the UK being transformed wholesale. The effects of that will be to increase food prices, damage the environment and change the visual landscape. And those effects will be most pronounced in areas where farming is vulnerable, and where farm incomes are lowest. In the UK, broadly speaking, the further you get from the centre of England, the lower farm incomes become – west Wales, northern Scotland, most of Northern Ireland have the most precarious forms of farming. That precarity is protected, kept from fatal non-viability, by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Everyone hates it. Farmers hate it. Politicians hate it. Taxpayers hate it. It needs reform. But without it? Food prices go up, the environment is disregarded, people lose their jobs and homes.
Post-election Brexit is in a state of flux, and with the DUP partially on board, it’s unclear how post-Brexit Britain will align itself to Europe on many issues. But Britain being outside the CAP in future, unless there is a rescinding referendum, is a certainty. By 2020 the EU will have rejigged the CAP, and the UK government has committed to maintain the same levels of subsidies for UK farmers until then. After that, it’s an open field. It’s hard to see a Tory government, if that’s what there is, replicating what the EU does after 2020. And there is much pressure inside the Conservative Party to open agriculture to market forces, rather than temper those forces via the CAP or something like it.
If you’re in the UK, or Ireland, or the EU, and you’re reading this, your locally-produced food, anything you eat that’s produced inside the EU, is subsidised food. If it wasn’t for the CAP most of your food would be more expensive (its price would either reflect the real cost of growing or importing it). And those views you look at when you’re in the Mournes, or the Glens of Antrim, or the Sperrins, or the Fermanagh Lakes – these vistas of natural beauty – those views are all subsidised by the EU too. Farming goes on as it does in such areas, and avoids radically and irresponsibly transforming the landscape, because its unprofitability is negated via subsidy.
Inside the anti-EU, pro-Brexit forces in the UK there is a particular ideology which is not just against the EU on national(ist) grounds but which sees the EU as a project of social democracy in need of brutal destruction via the free market. Never mind that the EU accounts for 80% of Britain’s agricultural exports; what is needed, this ideology argues, is unsubsidised food production based on supply and demand.
As it happens, the chief proponent of this view (and one of the few people inside the pro-Brexit camp to have thought at all about agriculture) is Owen Paterson, former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Paterson’s position paper ‘UK agricultural policy post-Brexit’ was published by UK2020 in January of this year. ‘The first priority in growing the rural economy must be to increase food production’, writes Paterson. And here, in one simple sentence, is the end of the rural landscape as you know it. If the priority is food production, then what is not a priority anymore is how that food is produced, who it is produced by, what the effects of producing it are, and how those producers survive and live.
Paterson’s model for these reforms is New Zealand: ‘There are clear lessons to be learnt from the policy adopted by New Zealand in the 1980s, which moved away from subsidies … and demonstrated that food production can increase when farmers are given freedom to react to the market.’ This policy was known in New Zealand as Rogernomics (sardonically echoing the Reaganomics of New Zealand finance minister Roger Douglas, who devised and implemented the plan). The result of the sudden and absolute withdrawal of subsidies from ‘inefficient’ farmers was that many went to the wall. Suicide rates among farmers went up. Paterson likes to cite the change away from unproductive sheep farming to deer, beef and wine – a kind of Oxbridge-College-menu version of farming. As it currently stands 55% of UK farmers’ income comes via EU subsidy. The levels of farming and rural poverty in Northern are such that, before the Assembly collapsed, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (NI) had launched an initiative to tackle rural deprivation. Withdrawing 55% of the income of already poor farmers might fit the ideology and replicate the New Zealand model, but it’s tantamount to a land clearance project in order to usher in the profit motive.
It seems to me that the implementation of a policy of (frankly outdated) Reaganomics to Northern Irish agriculture will see a partial Americanisation of farming, where it can happen, and a creeping neglect of agriculture in places where large-scale farming can’t take hold (not a New Zealand-style transformation but a handing over of agricultural land and labour to big corporations). So, for example, an increase in field size is an obvious outcome here, especially where crops are grown. Immediately, then, the landscape changes. Pesticides and fertilisers will be more intensely used. Hedgerows will be taken out, because they are spatially inefficient. Wildlife diversity (heavily protected by CAP-related restrictions) will be set aside. Small farms, now nonviable, will be gobbled up by expanding large-scale farms, or left to decay.
The Common Agricultural Policy is a big, creaky, messy, often preposterous set of rules, regulations and inefficiencies. It’s like the EU. If you never think about farming in a western society, then this is the only way in which you will ever understand the Common Agricultural Policy. Please think again. The CAP is, first and foremost, a subsidisation of the price of food. This is absolutely necessary especially for the poor in western societies. It also protects the environment from the rapaciousness of capitalism. It gives an income to farmers who could not survive otherwise. And it makes them both food producers and custodians of a landscape. To exit the EU and enter unsubsidised farming might work in the home counties of England. But in Northern Ireland it is a potential disaster. It would transform the landscape – its social fabric and its human activity as well as its and physical appearance – in appalling ways.
Back in August 2016 Arlene Foster, then First Minister, wrote a letter jointly with the then Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, to Theresa May pointing to the particular dangers to Northern Ireland’s agriculture sector in leaving the EU … I know, ’the dangers’ of something you campaigned for. Let’s hope she remembers this in the midst of the DUP’s excitement at being courted in the post-election chaos. Because if Paterson and his ilk have their way, Northern Ireland’s landscape will begin to look very different in ten years’ time.