In the United Kingdom, post-Brexit agriculture in the midst of a crisis

“No, George, you can’t go out, it’s not time yet”, Liz Webster said to a huge brown bull, scratching the top of its head. From the narrow enclosure adjoining the stables, where the farmer has entered and where dozens of other animals are turning in circles, we can see the grass already high in the meadows. But, in mid-May, the ground is too soggy, after a very wet spring, to let out the 350 heads of this large cattle farm in Wiltshire (south of England), a few kilometers from the town of Swindon.

The farm – pastures and cereal crops (mainly maize to feed the animals) – extends over 700 hectares, on both sides of the motorway linking London to Bristol. Liz Webster and her husband mainly breed South Devon cows, placid chestnut cows, but also South Devon crosses and Salers (rounder heads) and white and black Herefords.

“The land is not of excellent quality for cereals, but it is good for grazing. Given our surfaces, we could have a lot more animals if we wanted to, but we don’t have the energy anymore.”, confides the 59-year-old farmer, who tells of advancing age and, with it, the anxiety of the future. The children have no intention of taking over the farm, the construction programs for new houses are constantly eating away at the surrounding landscape, climate change is already noticeable. “The weather has become unpredictable”assures Liz Webster.

“Who is going to feed the British? »

But what especially worries this former Liberal Democrat (LibDem) candidate in the 2019 general election is the state of the post-Brexit agricultural sector, in full upheaval. The British government has chosen to abandon the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) model of direct subsidies to farmers proportional to the areas they farm. These payments represented, on average, 55% of the income of English farms in 2019, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. They have been decreasing by around 15% per year since 2021 and will have disappeared in 2028.

Liz Webster (in the company of her bull Harold), operator of a cattle farm on her farm near Swindon (United Kingdom), May 29, 2023.

Instead, the ministry is gradually introducing Environmental Land Management (ELM), a system of subsidies paying farmers only on the condition that they produce “public goods” with an environmental vocation: that they plant hedges, trees, restore peat bogs, contribute to the purification of air or water. The CAP’s objective of ensuring food security has been abandoned.

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