AFTER almost five decades as a member of the powerful European Union (EU) trading bloc, Britain has struck out on its lonesome.
At 23:00 Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) last Friday, 31 January, Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivered Brexit to the third-largest economy in Europe.
It is almost four years since 17.4 million British voters opted for Brexit in the United Kingdom’s (UK) EU Referendum, giving the “leave” side a decisive but divisive 52 per cent of the vote. Four painful and profoundly uncertain years have ensued, stifling the economy and unsettling investors.
The UK has now entered an 11-month transition period during which Johnson must finalise new trade deals with the country’s most important economic partners. During this phase, which ends on 31 December 2020, the UK will continue to adhere to all of the EU’s rules and its trading relationship will remain the same.
This transition period, which some prefer to call the implementation period, comes at a critical time for the British economy, which grew in 2019 at its slowest annual rate in almost a decade. Failure to strike a deal with Brussels would mean significant new trade barriers. This would be a disaster for economic growth and could push Britain into recession.
Importance of agriculture
Agriculture’s importance to the UK economy is emphasised by the fact that it has 149,000 farm businesses. That’s more than the number of businesses involved in the motor trade, in education, in finance and in insurance. The farming sector contributes more than £120 billion (AU$237B) to the economy and employs more than 4M people.
However, food self-sufficiency has been declining steadily for more than 35 years since it peaked at 78pc in 1984. That figure was down to 61pc in 2018, and the downward trend is forecast to continue.
In mid-January, the UK government tabled radical changes to £3B (AU$5.9B) a year in agricultural spending that will focus the money on benefits to ecosystems, the climate and the public. The UK’s food security is to be regularly assessed by parliament to ensure minimal disruption to supplies while new trade deals are sought.
The UK’s new Agriculture Bill has been called one of the most significant pieces of legislation for farmers in England for over 70 years. It has the potential to affect the livelihoods of more than 460,000 people and determine the future of the 70pc of UK land area (17.4M hectares) currently under agricultural management.
End of CAP
At the bill’s core is a swing away from direct payments to farmers based upon the area of agricultural land they manage. This was a feature of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that was widely criticised as it pushed up land values, creating an entry barrier for younger farmers, and benefited large landowners disproportionately. Instead, landowners will in future be paid to produce “public goods”. These are things that can benefit everyone but bring no financial reward to those who produce them, like clean air and water.
Over the next seven years, farmers will move from the CAP regulations to a new system of environmental land management contracts. These will detail the terms and conditions under which farmers and land managers will receive funding.
New initiatives include a stronger emphasis on the soil, at risk from misuse, erosion and nutrient loss; farmers are to receive help maintaining healthier soils, as well as with improvements to the tracking of livestock movements between farms. There will also be new powers to regulate fertiliser use and organic farming.
One of the biggest questions facing Johnson’s Conservative Party is the type of relationship it wants with the EU. The trading bloc currently purchases almost 50pc of UK exports, and supplies more than 50pc of the UK’s imports. More than 25pc of Britain’s food comes from the 27 other EU member countries, and less than 20pc comes from non-EU nations.
Another critical test for the Johnson government will be negotiating a trade deal with the United States, which already has a trade surplus with the UK. If past performance is an accurate indicator of future intentions, President Trump is highly unlikely to agree to anything significant without expecting a lot in return. If the UK resists US demands, then concluding a free-trade agreement could take years.
Opportunities for Australia
In the case of Australia, the UK currently accounts for approximately 1.5pc of Australian agricultural exports, and it seems unlikely that even in the post-Brexit era, this will increase to any significant degree. Nevertheless, the UK’s dependence on agricultural imports from the EU will likely be reduced due to trade barriers, and this will open up opportunities for nations such as Australia to increase agricultural exports to the UK.
The Australian Government has said that it is focused on preserving and promoting Australia’s strategic and economic interests with both the EU and UK during, and beyond, the transition period. It is working to address any risks posed by Brexit and is looking at ways to maximise opportunities with the EU and UK, including Australia-UK and Australia-EU free-trade agreements.
The latter has the most potential to deliver significant outcomes for Australian agriculture, especially if a reduction, or removal, of the existing tariffs and quotas on Australian agricultural exports can be negotiated. While that has been dismissed by seasoned EU negotiators, some additional market access may be possible.
Meanwhile, big questions remain around how the EU will approach the next 11 months in terms of agricultural trade with the UK. After producing a huge crop for the 2019/20 marketing year, UK wheat and barley traded at export parity to ensure it was competitive with continental markets.
The start of the 2019/20 marketing season saw the UK export grain at a significant rate to mitigate political uncertainty around Brexit, but exports slowed substantially in the last quarter of 2019. As a result, Britain is still carrying a sizeable grain surplus, but its marketing options are diminishing, and the coronavirus has spooked international markets.
This article was written by Grain Brokers Australia.
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