Forget Brexit – the relentless weather hits UK farming harder
Ask any UK farmer about the benefits of Brexit and you might wish you’d let your dog loose in a field full of sheep instead. Yet farmer Joe Stanley says the extreme weather is giving farmers a harder time than the chaos wreaked by leaving the EU.
Nuts is the only way for farmer Joe Stanley to describe the weather in 2023. At the time of writing it’s belting it down in the wake of Storm Ciarán, and it’s easy to understand why farmers despair.
“I’ve had years when my yields have been 50% down, or 90% down, and that’s entirely due to climate change,” says Stanley. “It started happening in 2018. I’d been farming for 15 years, my parents and grandparents were all farmers, and the weather was broadly predictable in temperate, lovely Britain. Now the weather is nuts. It’s completely off the scale. And that’s all the time. It used to just be each season was nuts, then it was each month is nuts. Now we’re breaking new weather-related records every single month.”
Stanley is a livestock and arable farmer (and author). He’s also part of the Allerton Project, a 320 hectare demonstration farm in Leicestershire, which aims to make farming more resilient. It needs it.
“We rely so incredibly closely on the ability to get into our fields at certain times of the year to cultivate the land to plant the crops,” he says. “And you can’t do those things when it’s too wet or too dry. It’s not just that it’s more difficult or more expensive, you cannot do them. You just can’t get the crops planted. You can’t do it. Farms are slaughtering cattle because they don’t have enough food to feed them. The biggest challenge we face as UK farmers right now is climate change.”
Not Brexit? Like the overall country, farmers were split over whether to Leave or Remain in 2016. But by 2021 NFU president Minette Batters was describing the situation with Brexit as a “betrayal”, that farmers were being used as “pawns” in negotiations, and that successive Conservative politicians had broken “promises” around existing protections. It sounds tiresomely familiar.
Now farmers fear with the US and Canada hovering, trade deals like those proposed with Australia are the thin end of the wedge. The fear is that domestic farmers will suffer as they are forced to compete with cheaper imports produced to lower safety and welfare standards.
Yet Brexit, with all the trouble it has caused, and will continue to cause, has nothing on the problems delivered by climate change, according to Stanley. “Of course if you’re a dairy farmer then TB is going to be the worst thing for your business, or maybe you’re a fruit farm that can’t get labour. But I think for the industry as a whole it’s going to be climate change.”
“If you lose your entire crop that’s a problem, and that’s entirely down to climate change, or increasingly extreme weather patterns. So yes, Brexit is huge, along with about half a dozen other things, which unfortunately are all happening at the same time along with climate change. We had that incredibly hot 2018 and then an incredibly wet winter. And it’s just been the same every single year since then.
“Some seasons are slightly worse than others but every year seems to be the same, extreme in one form or another. It’s not what you expect from Britain, we are being as badly impacted as many parts of the world where you expect these things, but now it’s happening to us as well.”
The question then, is how can we reduce the impact of climate change, and build resilience into farming systems and the wider supply chain?
“Climate change has had the biggest impact on our profitability, but also our ability to produce food sustainably,” he says. “There have been a lot of challenges facing the sector in the last five or ten years, Brexit has been significant and many sub challenges arose from that.
“But it’s the extreme weather that’s had the greatest impact by far on my bottom line, and my ability to produce food in the sustainable way I want to. And that extreme weather is only predicted to get worse in the next few years. So as a farmer I need to work out how I can build a more resilient food system on my farm to meet that challenge.”
UK agriculture plays an essential role in our supply chain, but a familiar criticism is that the government is not as supportive as it could be of British farmers, a perceived lack of support which threatens the sustainability of the UK farming industry itself. A recent row over hormone-injected beef at the Conservative party conference did nothing to change that perception. Is enough attention paid to promoting British farming products?
“No. Absolutely not. The organisations which actively promote British food tend to be voluntary organisations or industry bodies, but in reality the British farming industry has been relatively lazy in promoting itself to the public.
“Farmers are often reluctant to see their money spent on marketing, because they consider it’s obvious that people should eat British, right? So farmers, to an extent, have not helped themselves. What percentage of their annual turnover do Coca Cola or McDonald’s put into marketing? And everyone knows those products.
“The reality is if you polled the British public they would say they support British food, and they support British farming, because they want the high standards, and they want the high quality. But when it comes to doing the actual shop they are motivated by price. So that is a significant problem.
“You know, we only produce 60% of the food in the UK that we eat, we import 40% of our food and that is declining every year. That is something we do need to address, but the government is not particularly interested in promoting British food and farming. It’s something I believe the government only pays lip service to, which is a great shame because British agriculture has the solutions to many of the problems that we face as a society.”
A fundamental mistake
Why does he think the government is just paying lip service to this situation?
“I think the government sees food as a private sector concern. And it’s not just this government, previous governments thought exactly the same thing – that it is the role of the free market to provide food. And that I think is a fundamental mistake.
“When you’re talking about things as important as food security, food quality and sustainability in the food system, we know that the free market is not the best mechanism to provide those things. And I think there should be a rethinking in government of how we approach our domestic food system.
“All of a sudden we’re concerned about energy security, but you’re going to run into exactly the same problem if the lights go out as if the food runs out. And this is something that we can’t just leave to the supermarkets, which is currently the situation that we’re facing.”
A post-Brexit shake up to the subsidies paid to farmers also means that “money that we were receiving to underpin our ability to farm and stay in business has been removed. So when it comes to food production this country is no longer subsidised, we no longer have a financial underpinning for our cheap system.
“We can’t increase the price of the food that we produce because essentially farmers are price takers. The retail sector obviously has a stranglehold over those prices. So we are looking at a situation where agriculture is going to be fundamentally unprofitable. And the alternative is that that government is now funding are not going to be bringing in enough money to support agriculture. So that’s the fundamental problem that farmers across England are now facing.”
Stanley is also frustrated by the way the media reports on the various pressurised situations facing farming. “The media understanding of where we are is atrocious. The media is hugely challenging of the government on pretty much every area of policy, but when it comes to Defra, the environmental policy, or food and farming, bizarrely the media just follows the government’s line.
“There just isn’t the critique of the policy that you would get in other in any other area of government policy where it seems the media is inherently hostile and wanting to find the problems. When it comes to the environment and food, it just gets swallowed hook, line and sinker.”
Asked about Defra secretary of state Thérèse Coffey, Stanley politely suggests some consistency at Defra might be nice. Two days before this article is published, a headline-grabbing reshuffle sees Coffey resign to be replaced by Steve Barclay, the former health secretary. Certainly farming is not the only industry to have a legitimate wish for more stability trickling from the government. But, surely, in the wide world of farming, there must be some positives to talk about?
“Well, in a way, it’s certainly one of the most exciting periods in in agricultural history,” he says. “We are moving towards a fourth great agricultural revolution, in terms of the sustainability of the food that we’re producing. Some of the technology we now have in the 21st century, and how we can apply that to sustainable food production, is absolutely thrilling.
“Britain has the potential to be a world leader in sustainable agriculture. And yet, unless we get the support of government, the wider food supply chain, and of consumers, that will not happen. We will diminish as an industry. Agriculture has the potential to provide sustainable, net-zero, climate friendly food, and that is a real possibility. At the same time we have the potential to deliver on biodiversity, to deliver on air, and water quality, and other natural capital. We just need the support in order to achieve it.”