The sands of the Brexit egg timer are running down on whether we have a hard or soft boiled outcome, either way, the industry which will be most scrambled by the outcome is agri food. Approximately half of the EU budget has historically been spent on subsidising this industry, almost every farm on every road from Aughnacloy to Athens has been in receipt of a cheque as well as tariff protections which have kept them in business for living memory.
This matters in NI as agri food is our biggest employer. Not everyone has a direct attachment to the land but when you take in food processing, packaging, transport and DAERA it is a huge part of our economy. The large number of trucks leaving NI each day laden with food exports means that there is a lot available to bring goods back in cheaply. The lorries taking out Moy Park’s turkeys at Christmas bring back chocolate eggs bulky and fragile and expensive to import at Easter. Agri food has a major impact on our transport logistics and the cost of goods here.
The processing companies are largely foreign owned and to a considerable degree foreign staffed, they have no reason to be loyal to NI plc post-Brexit and will be free to go where the euro or dollar takes them.
How this is managed post-Brexit should be of interest to us all not just the farming community. None of us is any more than a few miles from the countryside, all of us buy goods imported on returning food lorries. Many of us will have businesses and jobs linked in some way to the industry. If any subsidies continue we will all be paying them, shouldn’t we have some input?
If we don’t all engage the only lobbying being done will be from big farm enterprises and possibly the bank’s committed to them. They would like a production based subsidy to encourage output. This might maintain the processing jobs but would it be a return to butter mountains and perhaps Baileys lakes if not wine lakes here.How would this work in a free trade situation can we afford to subsidise other countries food Do we want to encourage intensification and consolidation of our farms into ever larger units would this help the environment. Do we want to maintain our rural patchwork landscape? Do we want to tie up our limited land area in food production or leave some room for diversification into amenities for all?
Would quality and safety of our food be better or worse off with production subsidies? Would small family farms be more or less likely to be swallowed up? We all need to be careful which basket we put these eggs in.
William Kinmont is the pen name of a vet in Northern Ireland.