Farming is at the heart of Scottish society, but Brexit threatens it

BREXIT, if it happens, has not even begun to happen yet, but already there are clear signs of what heartache is ahead. This week the NFU, Scotland’s biggest voice in farming, sounded a panic alarm that we should all hear. I’ve long said call it agriculture and you’ll have only so big an audience, but call it food and we all pay attention.

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First published in The National, 15 February 2018

A study from the NFU released this week shows that 100 per cent of respondents say seasonal labour is important to their business. That’s a good starting point. A total of 65 per cent are finding it more challenging to recruit staff, and almost half had difficulty already in harvesting their crops. In 2017, farmers saw their first labour shortfall in years, with more than 4000 posts left unfilled. This is not some dry statistic, this is good Scottish fruit and vegetables rotting in the fields, financial losses for farmers, and a UK Government clapping its collective hands over its collective ears, ignoring it all.

Farmers have been shouting from the rooftops for months – this isn’t some unexpected side effect. The economic impacts on farming businesses and our wider economy are genuinely frightening – 58 per cent of the respondents from the NFU survey are considering downsizing their business, resulting in less economic activity and – crucially – less food.

Farming is at the heart of Scottish society, it defines us as a nation. It is the food we eat, how we steward our land, how we treat our animals and where we live. Without a prosperous agricultural sector rural Scotland becomes unviable. Damage to Scottish farming damages all of us.

Out of the 13,400 workers recruited in the first half of 2017, 14 were British. Three quarters come from Bulgaria or Romania. Immigration has been great for Scotland, we need immigration, yet the UK immigration minister says there isn’t “sufficient evidence to justify a seasonal workers’ scheme” and airily dismissed the NFU food rotting reports as “a little bit of a scare story”. Most ignorance is wilful.

The NFU has no axe to grind here, and I take what they say very seriously. I first joined the European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee in 2007, have worked with and for Scottish farming since and can vouch for the NFU’s dogged – and vocal – determination to do what’s best for their membership. An objective, impartial union dedicated to representing the farmers and promoting the interests of the agricultural sector isn’t going to steer them wrong for political capital.

Doubtless some well-meaning folk will now be saying “well, why not raise the wages then and recruit British workers to harvest British crops?”

It’s a fair point because being paid fairly is obviously important, but it is not the whole story. Call me sceptical but I don’t think the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg want to use Brexit as a catalyst to pay fruit pickers fairly. Increased wages would be increased costs, thus increased food prices for all of us, at a time when too many people are already food poor. Who do you think is going to absorb those increased costs? I can tell you from personal experience that it isn’t likely to be the supermarkets.

In January 2016, Tesco was found guilty of breaching the Groceries Supply Code by knowingly delaying paying their suppliers, and Unfair Trading Practices (UTPs) by the supermarkets have been strangling our farmers for years.

Supermarkets can tell a farmer that they’ll buy cheese at £10 per kilo, for instance, and then once it’s been delivered, decide it’s £5 a kilo. The supplier can complain but who’s going to buy his or her cheese next time?

It’s an obscenity to risk more crops rotting in the fields while so many people can’t afford to eat. Food prices are going to rise, and it’s not good enough to say “let’s patch the cracks and let the food banks sort it out”.

Solutions can be found. The Scottish Government’s policy – maintain freedom of movement in and out of Scotland – is clear and unambiguous. Sadly that is not a Scottish power, and where we could find solutions it would require the UK Government having a rational discussion about immigration and freedom of movement. The run-up to the EU referendum was outright ugly and the aftermath of the Brexit vote was a near-perfect example of how not to handle geopolitical relations – isolationist, squabbling, and incompetent. Small wonder that so many folk have been put off coming over to pick fruit. Brexit Britain – where the Brexiteers will find out, too late, there’s not much eating on a blue passport.