What next for British agriculture outside the European Union?

Tom MacMillan of the Soil Association says that how the UK government approaches the post-Brexit world could make or break the future of British food and farming

Tom MacMillan

A year on from the Brexit vote, the future is as clear as mud when it comes to our food and farming. Food and drink is Britain's biggest manufacturing sector, yet we produce just half the food we eat. Europe is our biggest trading partner, with European imports providing around a quarter of our food.

UK farming also relies heavily on EU subsidies and regulations. Unravelling and rebuilding these relationships will be a huge challenge. While it will be crucial to hold steady in some areas, the last election revealed an appetite for change, and now is the time for a different vision. There are now four make-or-break tests of our food and farming system facing whoever is in government.


  1. Will they put the monumental task of tackling climate change at the heart of agricultural policy? Our food?and farming system can no longer be the elephant in the room when it comes to action on climate change. Climate change is already beginning to transform how we farm, use land and access food, and offers untapped opportunities to cut emissions. Solutions like organic farming, which can restore soils, store carbon and reduce fossil fuel dependence, must be a high priority for future investment post-Brexit.
  2. Will they guarantee high standards? Standards on food quality, environmental protection, animal welfare and labour must be maintained and strengthened. There is no public mandate for compromise. Instead, there is broad support for the development of world-leading standards that the UK can be proud of and that better protect consumers and our natural world.
  3. Will they recognise and invest in the people who put food on our plates and who care for our countryside? One lesson from the EU referendum was that rural communities felt left behind. Farmers need to be assured a steady transition from the CAP, maintaining the overall farm payment budget, and increasing investment in countryside stewardship and support for practical, farmer- led innovation. There should be a focus on localising supply chains and ensuring farmers and growers get a fair share of profits, especially in trade negotiations.?
  4. Will they reverse cuts to the public health budget? Austerity cuts are starving child health programmes, while the NHS staggers under the burden of diet-related diseases. With over 10 per cent of the NHS budget now spent on diabetes, and one in five primary school leavers obese, it is short-sighted to cut local authority prevention budgets. We can't afford not to invest in child health.


Oliver Dowding, Green Party spokesperson on agriculture:


Since the referendum vote to leave, the future of anything Brussels-related is uncertain. Agricultural policy in particular is under the spotlight. With May's Government seeking deals, all the while cosying up to Donald Trump, many threats lie ahead.


The corporate world, largely dominated by US multinationals, manipulates agricultural policymaking, aided by attempts by the National Farmers' Union to influence Defra - May's DUP deal promises similar overall payments to farmers as the Common Agricultural Policy until 2022.

The NFU envisaged a 'race to the bottom' post-Brexit for farming standards but has since tried retracting the comment. Trump has urged lowering standards, besides quitting the Paris Climate Accord. We Greens must lead the fight to defend hard won protections for farming, the environment and animal welfare standards.

We must resist the corporate world's stealthy takeover of agriculture, imposing unfriendly technology and large- scale everything, leaving farming and the natural world far poorer. We don't want GMOs foisted on us, more chemicals, more intensification, or chlorine-washed chicken (many US chicken carcasses are dunked in chlorine wash before sale to kill bacteria instead of systemic sanitisation of chickens while alive), all justified to 'feed the (expanding) world'.

We can be better, quicker and kinder. We can better balance food production and consumption, proactively manage soils and future-friendly research, cut wastage, and enable healthy diets - good for us and the NHS - all by creating policies fit to sustain us and make the planet great again.