As the world faces a global pandemic that originated with unsafe food production, you might think that food safety would be high on the political agenda.
Similarly, as many countries brace for food shortages arising from Covid-19’s disruption to the global supply chains of both produce and labour, you might think that food security and protecting local food production would be a priority for the Westminster government. Apparently not, as MPs – including all Welsh Tory MPs, regardless of their pro-farming credentials or election campaigns – last month rejected an amendment to the Agriculture Bill that would protect the UK’s farmers and consumers from lower-standard food imports.
With headlines dominated by coronavirus coverage, the rejection of the amendment went largely unremarked outside the agricultural media. Having passed its third reading in the House of Commons, the House of Lords is now the only barrier to the bill becoming law.
What does this mean for the future of Welsh farming? Most importantly, what can we do about it?
A race to the bottom
A desperate attempt to placate the USA and to avoid a Brexit spike in food prices, the implications of passing the unamended Agriculture Bill in every other policy area are grim. From the perspective of animal welfare, the amendment’s absence effectively means that we have given up any meaningful opposition to cruel and dangerous livestock practices in post-Brexit Britain. It will permit the import of chlorinated chicken, perhaps one of the few products to have cut through to the British public as a possible negative consequence of Brexit trade deals.
What is less widely known is the reason that US poultry is dipped into chlorine dioxide before human consumption: that chickens in cages unable to move and transported live for up to 28 hours (compared to the EU’s 12), are so caked in faeces by the time they are slaughtered that their carcasses are loaded with salmonella and other harmful microorganisms.
Concerns for animal welfare are inextricable from the wider threat to the health of consumers posed by over-intensive, profit-driven meat production.
Hormone implants to cattle – banned by the EU but common in the USA – have been linked to several adverse health side effects in the animals themselves: mastitis, skeletal disorders, infection, digestive disorders, and failure of heat regulation. These side effects are painful and distressing for the animals and result in higher culling rates for dairy cattle treated with hormones.
However, the reason for the EU ban – recognised by the World Trade Organisation – is the apparent link between hormone-treated cattle and cancer in the humans that consume them. Lower hygiene standards in both animal rearing and slaughter also pose a significant risk to the public; as Simon Dawson (senior lecturer in food science and technology at Cardiff Metropolitan University) told the Big Issue in May last year, “You are currently seven times more likely to get food poisoning in the US than the UK.”
Intensive farming methods and the artificially cheap, and therefore over-consumed, meat that they produce also pose a significant threat to our environment through their contribution to both climate change and the destruction of habitats and the biodiversity that they sustain. This is particularly ludicrous in the context of the much-heralded reforms to farming subsidies that will accompany Brexit. Under the new UK plans, farmers will be subsidised not simply for cultivating the land but for providing public goods – sequestering carbon in trees and soil, growing pollinator-friendly flowers, and widening public access to the countryside. This unusually progressive move is welcome but significantly undermined by the fact that the bill will allow cheap imports produced with no concern for these public goods to undercut British farmers.
Farming after Brexit
The effect of a glut of cheap foreign imports on UK farming will be devastating. Produced at an impossibly low cost for British farmers who must still adhere to UK laws, these products will flood the UK domestic market at a time when exports will already be contracting. With the Conservative government refusing to extend negotiations with the EU, it increasingly seems that they are working towards a no-deal Brexit. It is difficult to make assessments about the economic impact of no-deal during such an unprecedented global downturn, which is possibly why the UK government is so steadfastly refusing an extension: better to bury the economic impact of no-deal under the Covid-19 depression and cluster the resulting shocks early in the election cycle. However, pre-crisis predictions still make depressing reading. According to the Anderson centre, the profitability of UK farming under a no-deal is projected to fall by 18%, an £850million hit to the industry.
Wales will be particularly hard hit by the dual impacts of both a no-deal Brexit and unrestricted imports. According to a 2019 Welsh Government report, agriculture represents 0.8% GVA (Gross Value Added) to the Welsh economy, 30% higher than the UK average of 0.6%. In 2018, agriculture, forestry, and fishing represented 3.2% of the workforce jobs in Wales, compared to the UK average of 1.1%.
Of the agricultural land in Wales, 80% is designated by the EU as a Less Favoured Area (with lower production potential) due to our surfeit of mountains and rain. As a result, sheep farming represents a larger proportion of the agricultural sector here than in the UK as a whole. Under a no-deal Brexit, UK sheep meat will be one of the worst-affected sectors, facing a 24% price fall. This translates to a reduction in the value of output – that is, in farmers’ incomes – of 37%. In a country like Wales where farms tend to be small and family-run this is not a storm that can be weathered.
The reality for Welsh farming communities facing these losses is even bleaker than the picture painted above. While agriculture may represent a small percentage of national output, it contributes greatly to the economy through intermediate expenditure (e.g feed, machinery, veterinary services). Wales’ farms sustain not only the livelihoods of farmers themselves but networks of interdependent industries. Combined with the regional concentration of jobs in agriculture – representing over 12% of jobs in Ceredigion and Powys – the collapse in Welsh farming will amount to a decimation of rural communities.
The loss of a lifeblood
It is impossible to convey through lists of statistics the grief and loss that the collapse of small farming in Wales will bring. As unemployment soars the emigration of young people from rural Wales to Welsh cities and to England will accelerate even further. They will leave behind communities of increasingly elderly people relying on hollowed-out public services. The 2019 election showed clearly the resentment and reactionary politics these abandoned regions breed: the seats that swung Conservative for the first time were those with the highest average population age.
Of holdings that applied for the Welsh government’s farming schemes in 2019, only 52% owned all the land they farmed. For tenant farmers, often with tenancy agreements conditional on earning a certain percentage of their income from the farm, the loss of their industry will also mean the loss of their home. Land cultivated for decades, even centuries, by members of one family will be turned over to farming corporations. The myths, traditions and rituals living in the land they tend will become, like so much of Wales’ identity, only a memory.
Perhaps the greatest impact will be on the Welsh language. There are few areas left in Wales where the language can be said to be living, where it is the language of day-to-day life. Most of them are rural, farming communities. It is hard for those outside these areas to comprehend a world where English is not the default, where sheepdog auctions list on the programme which language each dog understands. Welsh farming keeps this world alive. The language itself is rooted in agriculture with a seemingly infinite vocabulary for features of the land. If the communities that still have use for this vocabulary are destroyed then the words, and the worldview they sustain, will live on only in place names we no longer understand.
A way forward?
How can Welsh farming endure the unavoidable crises it faces? How can the avoidable crises be averted? Below is a far from exhaustive list of recommendations, many of which demand an article in their own right. Some are longer term ambitions while others demand urgent action; all will be necessary to the survival of Welsh farming.
Diversification and value-added farming
To address the future of Welsh farming, we must honestly assess its present and past. Total Income from farming (TIFF) – which includes, business profits, remuneration for unpaid workers, and subsidies – gives an idea of the total income from agricultural output, subsidies, and diversified activities by farmers. Between 1995 and 2017, UK TIFF increased by 24%. In the same period, Welsh TIFF rose by just 3%. In Wales, agriculture accounts for 88% of land use and less than 1% of GDP. In France, just over half the land is used for agriculture, yet the sector generates between 1.5 and 2% of GDP.
What is behind Wales’ underperformance? While there is never one simple answer to such a question, the lack of value-added products in Welsh livestock farming is key. For example, as Tegid Roberts explains in an interview with Desolation Radio, most of the milk produced in France is sold as value added products: cheese, cream, butter, whey etc. In Wales, 50% of milk is sold just as milk, missing all the value added to French dairy in its transformation into processed products. Similarly, livestock is often sold by farmers to intermediate actors who process the meat outside of Wales before selling it on to retailers.
Whatever the outcome of Brexit this model is no longer sustainable. To revitalise Welsh farming and rural communities Welsh farmers must diversify into meat processing, food preparation, product branding, marketing, and agro-tourism; establishing their own niches in food markets and their own loyal, (relatively) local customer bases. Many are already doing so, from established companies such as Llaeth y Llan to newer ventures such as Cig Eryri or (full discosure: my own extended family’s startup) The Llama Farmers. While the Welsh government has taken steps to support these enterprises, their success will require more than government grants: wider structural investments and reforms are needed.
Investment in infrastructure
In order to thrive new businesses must have the infrastructure to sustain them and to provide an attractive quality of life for their workforce. Broadband coverage in rural Wales is appalling, making it impossible to effectively run a business for the 2020s. As the Covid crisis looks set to make remote working and internet communication an even more integral part of working practices it is vital that rural Wales is not left behind. Similarly, Welsh public transport – particularly the rail service – is not fit for purpose. A thriving Welsh economy – including a thriving agricultural sector – cannot emerge in a country with what amounts to an extractive rail network on which it is easier to travel to England than to other parts of Wales.
Moving beyond ethical consumption
Burgeoning farming businesses also require our custom to survive. Large supermarkets wreak havoc in farmers’ lives worldwide and are responsible for some of the food and farming industries’ worst practices. Divesting from the supermarket system and buying direct from producers should be a priority for anyone concerned with building a better Wales. However, “ethical consumption” and the elitist shaming of working people for their consumption decisions can never be a radical solution. Restructuring the way our country eats will require exploring a multitude of approaches: food co-operatives, mutual marketing schemes, ending the disgraceful food insecurity of swathes of Wales’ population (including the inhumane benefits system), education and involvement of urban young people in tending the land, public campaigns against industry bad actors, and many more strategies yet to be imagined.
Raising public awareness
Perhaps the biggest threat to Welsh farming’s survival is the deficit of public opposition to its destruction. This deficit of opposition reflects a deficit of information, itself reflecting the deficit of media coverage. Last year at the Royal Welsh Show, the president of NFU Cymru – a distinctly un-militant union except in exceptional circumstances – warned of civil unrest and direction action if the government did not protect Welsh farmers: “We have to avert a no-deal Brexit and I want to be clear that as far as NFU Cymru is concerned, we rule nothing out in terms of how we achieve this.” I would be surprised if 1 in 1000 Cardiff residents had any idea that Welsh farmers were considering such action, let alone anybody outside Wales. This is a consequence of a London-focused British media that will never provide adequate coverage of Welsh concerns. It is imperative that we support our burgeoning independent Welsh media and push for media devolution if we are to understand, let alone improve our country.
It is easy to feel hopeless about the future of Welsh farming, particularly when so few people seem to know or care about the threat it faces. However, this widespread ignorance and indifference should galvanise us: so many people know literally nothing about this issue that the difference each of us can make by simply talking about it is enormous. As the Agriculture Bill is debated in the House of Lords, now is the time to spread the word and campaign. If someone mentions Brexit, make sure they know how farming will be affected. If someone mentions cruelty to animals, make sure they know what the Agriculture Bill will allow. If someone mentions the survival of the Welsh language, make sure they know which industry sustains it. Welsh farming is a part of our heritage and our identity no matter which part of Wales we live in. “Sheepshagger” might not be our favourite nickname but we’ll miss it when it’s gone.
Help us fight the agriculture bill
With grateful thanks to my aunt, uncle, and cousins, who keep Taid’s farm alive, who have taught me so much of what is written above, and who tend and preserve one precious piece of Wales.
Photo by AG, The Llama Farmers