As a community, farmers are a staunchly Conservative bunch; 60% of them voted for Brexit, nearly twice the rate of the general population1,2. The Brexit campaign promised farmers in particular that they would better off, better funded and less encumbered with regulation. All three points have proven to be untrue and the UK farming industry has been suffering terribly for years as a result of loss of access to markets3, loss of EU labourers4,3 and removal of essential EU funding that hasn't been replaced by UK government funding.
To make up for loss of a trade deal with the EU, Liz Truss, the Government's head of trade negotiations, made deals with Australia and New Zealand, but the UK's trade power compares to the EU's "so badly that they gave the farming sector's competitors almost everything they could have dreamed of"2. Exports and imports must travel further, face higher tariffs and barriers, and are subject to more paperwork than ever before5,3.
The UK farming sector in 2021 found itself five hundred thousand workers short, out of 4.1 million6. A quarter of some crops have gone unpicked and one single farm chain reported £500,000 of produce has been left to rot in fields due to lack of workers. It's also impacting on meat production, meat processing, poultry production and food processing with up to 20% of orders being late or unfulfilled2,6,3,3. A Government report in 2022 found problems in four areas: 75% of them squarely due to the loss of workers caused by Brexit.
The Conservative Party was led by a hardcore of Brexiteers that did not have a realistic understanding of the benefits of EU membership for UK farming, and therefore, could not plan appropriately. As of 2022, there are still no mitigations against these issues, and the industry, academics and internal Government investigations are warning of the permanent shrinkage of UK farming2,6 despite food produce being in increasing demand across the globe.
Farmers are "battle-weary" from the extra paperwork being caused by Brexit, which is "grinding us all down"5, says one farmer. There is ongoing fear for the mental welfare of farmers, who were already subject to a lot of strain and a high suicide rate; now the lack of workers is adding stress and extended their already-very-long working long hours6.
“Labour shortages are already having a negative impact on the mental health of farm owner/operators. Some farm business owners report feeling more exposed to fluctuations and changes in the economy of the industry, increasing the vulnerability of their business. [Labour unreliability] is likely to create or exacerbate mental health issues in the form of stress, anxiety or depression for some employers. This applies to any sector where farm labour is crucial, not just the larger horticultural units.”
"Farm labour in the U.K.: Accessing the workforce the industry needs"
Nye & Lobley (2021)4
During the Brexit campaign, many farmers "had voted for Brexit because they wanted to see a reduction in regulation"5. But the opposite has happened and farmers in 2022 have been raising issues about the "increasing burden of bureaucracy for farm businesses since Brexit [...] which is adding significant time and cost"5. The EU gave the UK access to harmonized and centrally-managed processes for paperwork, improving efficiency across EU member states. Without this, individual businesses are now having to complete much more paperwork, despite government spokespeople promising that Brexit would bring reduced paperwork.
Within the Conservative Party, the MPs representing farming constituencies tend to be "from the Brexit-supporting right wing of the party... they were told that Brexit would mean the same access to the same markets"2 and support from the Government should issues arise. The warnings of the Remain campaign were accurate: the Government has been unable to get a good deal, unable to replace EU trade access with individual trade deals, and powerless to prevent tariffs and trade bureaucracy.
“The government's head of trade deal negotiation was until recently Liz Truss. [... Her] deals with Australia and New Zealand were negotiated in haste, and so badly that they gave the farming sector's competitors almost everything they could have dreamed of.
As part of the public-relations driven rush to get some trade agreements on to their record, the Government gave basically tariff-free and unlimited access to Australian farm imports of beef, lamb, dairy and sugar. Domestic producers simply cannot compete; both those countries are voluminous food-exporters with almost no interest in buying British products, but, can easily undercut British firms more than any EU country ever did, or could, or would have been permitted to do.
Now we are trading with countries other than the EU, it means we are dealing with exporters that have lower standards. We are therefore importing cheaper and lower quality food, undercutting our own quality markets, and failing to export.
“Farmers could previously sell any surplus from overseas operations to EU markets, but new Brexit red tape means they must now pay to dispose of this fruit.”
The National Farmers' Union Seasonal Supply of Labour Survey found that 99% of such workers in the UK came from the EU7,8. So, it's no surprise that since Brexit, the UK farming sector has suffered an immense loss of labour4. In 2021 it found itself five hundred thousand workers short, out of 4.1 million6, impacting on crop picking and crop harvesting - with a quarter of some crops going unpicked and over £500,000 of produce left to rot in fields due to lack of staff by just one chain of farms. It's also impacting on meat production, meat processing, poultry production, food processing with up to 20% of orders being late, and hampering food and farm industry logistics.
The UK benefitted tremendously from EU workers; as an aging country these working-age migrants conducted physically demanding work, paid taxes into a system that therefore supported pensions and welfare for the UK's sizeable old-age population, and then, return back to the EU when they were no longer required. As a young demographic, they were healthy and didn't use many NHS services; and being from the EU, they were literate in English. Since the UK left the EU, the farming industry, after asking the government repeatedly for help, has been left to fail by the Conservative Government which was committed to minimizing EU migrant workers at all costs, despite promises to the farming industry during Brexit that they wouldn't face a no-deal scenario and that they'd be better off and better funded without the EU. In reality, the sector now faces horrendous red-tape in trying to import workers, and those workers are from much further away, cost much more to process, take much longer to organize, and lack education and English-language skills.
“The pig industry is suffering most from the subsequent labour shortage. [...] Forty thousand pigs have had to be culled and their carcasses destroyed, while another 200,000 animals are stuck on farms and can't be processed because of a dire shortage of workers in abattoirs. The horticultural sector... needs pickers and processors and normally relies on migrant labour to do the work. New inspections at UK ports will also mean they will need for more vets to do the work; there are nowhere near enough UK-trained staff. And worst of all, no one is listening.”
The UK Government's report on the sector summarized its issues thusly:
“The food and farming sector has been suffering from acute labour shortages [which has] badly affected the food and farming industry - threatening food security, the welfare of animals and the mental health of those working in the sector. [...] The pig sector being particularly affected. The food sector is the UK´s largest manufacturing sector but faces permanent shrinkage [...] and, ultimately [this leads to] food production being exported abroad and increased imports. We found that labour shortages across the sector were causing crops to go unharvested and left to rot in fields, healthy pigs to be culled, and disruption.”
It put Government failures into five bullet points. Of these, three are that the Government doesn't have a plan on how to replace EU workers: (1) an emergency Visa scheme in autumn 2021 was an unwelcome disaster, (3) the Skilled Worker Visa scheme doesn't work (4) and neither did the Seasonal Workers pilot scheme.6. Now that the largely English-speaking EU migrant workers have gone, the English-language requirements are proving a serious blocker for migrant workers from elsewhere (e.g., Africa and Turkey), and therefore, those rules for migrants should be altered6. The other points are that (5) there's not enough interest from Brits in training to be farmers. And (2), that the Government hasn't been listening to the industry on the other points, echoing the National Farmers' Union's feeling mentioned above that "worst of all, no one is listening". Disregarding self-referential point (2), of the 4 issues raised, 75% are a result of loss of labour due to Brexit. Paragraph 3 also notes that the same warnings about labour were raised by the same Committee's 2020 report, and, in Sep 2021 they wrote again on these concerns, asking Home Secretary Priti Patel to take action. Earlier in 2021 the University of Exeter's Centre for Rural Policy Research reported that the loss of farming manpower needs addressing urgently4.
The Government wasn't listening as it had already embarked on a multiple-year campaign to dispelling and discouraging EU workers. This led to many workers feeling unwelcome, and sometimes even, feeling in danger9. In addition to the farming industry itself, academics were also sounding warning bells.
“It is extremely unlikely that the domestic workforce will be able to fulfil the entire workforce requirements of the agricultural industry.”
"Farm labour in the U.K.: Accessing the workforce the industry needs"
Nye & Lobley (2021)4
“Migrants are a significant source of labour, particularly for unskilled, casual or seasonal work. In particular, thousands of Romanian and Bulgarian [both in the EU] workers came to the UK under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers´ Scheme (SAWS) [and mostly] worked in horticulture, particularly fruit-picking, and often lived on-site doing physically demanding jobs. [...] No more than a sixth of seasonal work is undertaken by British workers[...].
In more recent years, the UK Government´s curbs on immigration have caused wide concern in the farming sector over the potential loss of cheap labour from the EU and globally. The industry argues that these positions are difficult to fill with domestic workers. [...] In the wake of a UK decision to exit the EU, these debates will surely only intensify.”
“Brexit has led to a decline in crops and fewer home-grown products on the shelves of Britain´s supermarkets, farming chiefs have warned. [... and] less fresh, more expensive imported fruit in British supermarkets to cover the shortfall.”
For a wider picture looking at immigration overall, see:
Analysts are seeing that as the food and farm industry increase wages, the effect is to simply cause workers to move from one job to another within the industry, but not to attract more workers from the wider population.6,4. The 2022 report also notes that now, the costs and complications for Visas and migrant workers is now much higher now that we're not covered by common EU open-access worker schemes. for example, a Pork and Bacon Forum body said that it had taken eleven months to recruit 12 workers from The Philippines.
Brexit within the UK's governing Conservative Party was led by a hard-core of 'Brexiteers' organized into an internal party division called the European Research Group11, borne from a policy of removing as many foreigners as possible from the UK, no matter the cost. To achieve this, they spoke only in positive terms of the ramifications of Brexit and did not have a realistic understanding of the benefits of EU membership for the UK. With this slant, they could not give sensible advice11 nor make practical plans on how to deal with issues arising from Brexit. Most of the prominent "Brexiteers" have exited the scene at various points12, leaving a void filled with politicians who are pursuing a policy they don't think is good for their own country.
If they spoke the truth, the farming industry could have prepared. But they couldn't, because the Brexit campaign and Conservative Party fed them delusions about the prospects in a post-Brexit environment. From 2018:
“In 2017, the UK's government's Home Secretary (Amber Rudd) commissioned a major investigation and analysis of the role of EU citizens in Britain. One year after asking the populace to vote on leaving the EU, the UK government began its most important piece of information-gathering on the EU. They justified the expense of this research by saying that it is essential for the decision-making process, so that plans can be made to avoid a "cliff edge" for employers. Too late! Not only too late, but the investigation was important enough that's planned running-time was one year. Who has time to plan, when this principal piece of evidence would come after the exit date has already passed? There was widespread condemnation, criticism and confusion from all quarters that this basic research was not part of the initial preparations when deliberating over EU membership. Without this, nobody who voted had an informed vote.
They explained that the investigation covered these areas:13:
- Which sectors are most reliant upon EU labour.
- Costs and benefits of EU migration to the economy.
- The impacts of a loss in EU workforce.
- The impact of the EU workforce on skills and training.
- Are there advantages to focussing on high-skill migrant workers?
It mattered little what was in the final report. The news was not good. But it was all simply too late; ideology and sensationalist newspapers drove drove Brexit, not evidence.”
The UK's National Farmers' Union (NFU) met in Mar 2022, under the leadership of Minetter Batters. Her comments signalled a complete loss in confidence in the Conservatives government to meet the promises they made to farmers during the Brexit campaign.
“The Boris Johnson administration, she said, was responsible for "an utter disgrace and a disaster", with "contradictory government policies" and a "poorly designed change to immigration policy" showing it lacked a "strategy and a clear vision for what we expect from British farming".”
A survey found that since 2019, across five of the UK's most rural counties, support for the Conservatives has fallen from 46% to 38%, with Labour rising from 29% to 36% and "large gains were also seen for the Green Party"14.
“As with the fishing industry, the Brexit campaign pretended to champion the farmers' cause against Brussels, sought endless photo opportunities in farms and fields and then the second the vote was won dumped them. But it is only now that the full scale of that betrayal is becoming clear. The industry has four major worries about the government's policies. They are trade deals, standards, immigration and the new subsidies regime.
She demanded that DEFRA produce a plan that "pre-empts crises rather than repeatedly running into them"2. "It is not just that Brexit turned out to be not quite the bed of roses it was promised - it is far, far worse. Its whole future is now under threat in a way that seemed impossible just a few short years ago [with the threats] from its former sweatheart, the Conservative Party"2.
It's not only farmers that are reciprocating in withdrawing support for the Conservative party15, a growing number of Conservative MPs have changed their mind about Brexit. In April 2022, Conservative councillor Stuart Roberts left the Party to the join the Liberal Democrats, saying:
“The Government's post-Brexit trade deals have dealt a hammer blow to our farmers. Farming income has dropped by £60 million year on year in the South of England alone. I and many other farmers can't support Boris Johnson's Conservative Party. Time and time again, they've let us and our communities down. They're taking us for granted.”
Former Conservative Councillor, Stuart Roberts (2022 Apr)
As of 2022, there are still no mitigations against these issues, and the industry and internal Government investigations are warning of the permanent shrinkage of UK farming2,6,16 despite food produce being in increasing demand across the globe.