Recently The Guardian ran an article by John Harris called “They say after Brexit there’ll be food rotting in the fields. It’s already started.” Harris points out how vulnerable the industry is. Nearly half the fruit and vegetable industry workforce coming to the UK from the EU (rising to 90% for seasonal pickers). As Brexit makes the UK look an unfriendly place for Eastern European migrants whose own countries’ economies are on the up, we're already told that a huge employment agent in the sector reports he’s 20% down on staff. The agent foresees that crops will go spoiled and unpicked because of it. Some of the big growers, who run on tiny margins, may well ‘consider their investment’ and choose to set up elsewhere. Central and eastern Europe quite possibly.
So what will happen? It’s widely anticipated that British people won’t want to pick food – and the main growing areas of the country coincide with areas of low unemployment. So do - as Harris's article implies - inevitably face a future where Britain relinquishes even more of its food sovereignty, with domestic production decreasing and food miles and prices rocketing?
While the above bleak scenario has a ring of truth, it misses some key factors that have led to Britain’s dependency on foreign agricultural labour. Any discussion about the future of British agriculture must take into account issues of access to land, price rigging and working conditions. If we ignore them, the future may indeed be bleak.
The crisis of British agriculture is closely related to other crises in British society, and linked to the global crisis of the late 20th century capitalist model of industrialised agriculture. It’s as hooked on cheap labour and poor working conditions as it is on fertilisers and pesticides. They are all symptoms of a fundamentally flawed and bankrupt way of producing food. One way or another it will have to change. Without addressing the questions of access to land and food monopolies we have no chance of getting out of this mess. Brexit hasn’t created the crisis, it is only bringing it to a head.
Small farmers and growers in Britain and the world over often do the physically demanding and repetitive work involved in farming with great motivation and despite poor pay. They tend to put up with this because they have some amount of control over their workplace. Let me be clear: they should and need to be paid better. You can’t expect the same kind of tolerance from people without any stake in the production process and its results.
Pay people proper wages, give them decent working conditions and housing and they will do the work. You simply can’t pay for overpriced rural housing out of a wage packet that’s kept artificially low because the middlemen pocket most of the sales price. European workers may have somewhere else to go where they can recover from appalling treatment, but agricultural workers should and need to be properly valued for the work they do, no matter where they come from.
Land distribution in Britain is more unequal that in any other European country, with aristocrats and corporations owning the vast majority of it. Food prices are rigged by big supermarkets, preventing labourers and small farmers getting fair wages for their work. The low margin producers get from supermarkets means they provide the absolute minimum they can get away with in terms of sanitation, accommodation etc. I don’t blame anyone for rejecting work in these conditions, and I don’t think we should import workers from abroad just because they will put up with them.
The Landworkers Alliance (LWA) has put together key transitional demands to help address the situation, in their Recommendations for a Post-Brexit Agricultural Policy. Firstly, the UK should abolish subsidies for simply owning land and introduce a land value tax to favour creation of smaller farm units. Secondly, it should use the money generated to fund the transition to ecological farming practices together with training and peer learning in these practices. And thirdly, it should create a solid and enforceable framework to secure decent living standards and working conditions for agricultural labourers, tenant farmers and small producers.
These demands were voiced during the recent general election campaign in the Sustain Alliance’s Manifesto for a Better Food Britain. These are at least a step towards the public debate that would be needed to move towards a truly sustainable way of producing food in this country. To get there is not going to be easy and it’s not going to happen overnight, but unless that’s the general direction of travel and we get started soon we’re screwed. Getting informed and supporting initiatives like the LWA and Sustain would be a first step any of us can take.
This piece first appeared on Low Impact Living Initiative.