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Brexit : Towards building a new consensus for an Integrated Food and Rural Development Policy?

22 September 2016

Professor Terry Marsden, Director, Sustainable Places Research Institute

Just as increasing calls and debates occur regarding the need for a more integrated and comprehensive Food and Agricultural policy across Europe we now have the Brexit result, which  whilst not changing the urgency for the need  to debate the shape of European policy beyond 2020, certainly adds another dimension and potential ‘opportunity space’ for such developments. Whilst specific instruments and policy programmes might indeed increasingly vary across Europe, this result does not quell the need to debate what sort of founding and common principles upon which such policies should be based.

Here I would like to set out some of the issues and reactions to the Brexit vote for the agri-food policy arena, some of which I presented and discussed at the recent UK Food Research Consortium held at City University, London in July. I also draw upon the recent policy paper we have written, entitled ‘Food Policy and Public Policy’ for the Welsh Minister for Farming and Food.[1] In addition these arguments here draw upon the research and discussions associated with the ongoing (and increasingly policy relevant) EU funded research project, TRANSMANGO.[2]

First of all it is important when engaging in current debates about policy changes in this field in Europe, and as I concentrate here on the UK, to adopt a broad perspective concerning the role of policy and what the state system can provide. Hobbes and other classical democratic political theorists taught us that in return for national citizen political consent and support, the state should act to protect its citizens, as far as possible from wars and disease. In short, to care for its population’s resilience and sustainability over time and across it’s defined jurisdictions. For instance, the immediate post-war ‘consensus’ both in the UK and across much of the advanced world was one built upon the protection and enhancement of public goods in terms of providing relatively cheap and nutritious foods for all and in encouraging through a variety of direct support mechanisms, a fairly resilient productive sector to provide these public goods.

After several decades of neo-liberal macro-economic policy many would argue that both the generalised ‘Hobbesian bargain’ has indeed been largely broken, and more specifically we now have  as one consequence, a food system which is lacking in its resilience qualities, creating more unequal access to necessary foods, and creating higher and more interconnected sets of vulnerabilities for both consumers and producers. More specifically, the traditional links between enhancing positive food security and food sustainability have are being severely damaged, especially as neo-liberalising states confront the headwinds associated with climate change, resource depletion and bio-diversity and ecological loss. This litany is well documented, but continually denied by many agricultural and food interests, including researchers. [3] The latest UK ‘state of nature’ report (September 2016), reporting from 53 wildlife organisations and surveying 8000 land and freshwater species, concludes that more than half (53%) of UK species have suffered a decline in recent years (2002-2013), and 15% are at risk of vanishing altogether. This is put down to intensive agriculture’s ‘overwhelming negative impact’ together with climate change, urban sprawl and the declines in mixed farming systems. There has been a loss of 97% of wildflower meadows since the Second World War.

In engaging now in how we develop new common and what will have to be not just sustainable but restorative agri-food and rural development policies we will have to reset this Hobbesian bargain for the new challenges that face us. Public policy needs to support the re-building of ecological and human resilience as part of its function to generate public consent to govern. This will mean creating the policy conditions which allow positive synergies to be created between three central arena: food production and consumption, health and well being, and rural-urban spatial development. These policies and state interventions (in their principles at least) will have to be more ‘common’ and not necessarily centralised- whatever the overall shape and future of the EU- given that the challenges are now indeed transnational and translocal. In terms of the ecological and agri-food crisis we are all neighbours; and we will need neighbourly state actions in order to create the conditions for a truly restorative and sustainable agri-food system. The COP21 and recently redefined Sustainable Development Goals are indeed showing us the way in providing a new public space.

This current (dysfunctional) agri-food context then suggests that a key starting point will be to debate those restorative principles upon which (post-carbonised) common state actions should be developed; before prematurely launching into defining or advocating specific policy programmes and instruments. Forms of policy should follow from sets of public and common principles, overall policy intentions and then functions. Both the wider current debates in Europe and now the Brexit landscape in the UK both add up to more need for urgency in these overall restorative policy debates. In the UK it is worth outlining how competing reactions to Brexit are lining up, not least because, as we know, the agri-food policy landscape is highly politically contested. These contestations are likely to increase in intensity as Europe and the UK begin a process of renegotiation. A key question for academic researchers is how can we influence these contested perspectives through rational and objective evidence and a broader scientific appraisal which places restorative and sustainable objectives at the centre?

In beginning to address this question we need to first understand the nature of the contested policy dynamics and landscape currently underway given Brexit. There are three of these which seem to me to be relevant in understanding the current policy landscape.

The ‘race-to- the- bottom’ approach: release techno-science and ‘sustainable intensification’

A significant reason for Brexit amongst many of its protagonists in the agri-food policy arena was and now is associated with ‘gaining control’ over the destiny of the nation’s farming and food, and, not least, having more control over trading and technological adoptions. Reducing  a raft of environmental regulations, allowing GM planting and more imports, and reducing ‘red-tape’ are seen as major gains from this perspective. This approach sees it as inevitable that farming will become more intensified on larger farms, and that, as with the New Zealand model, these farms will be best equipped to take advantage and adopt bio-technologies. Consumers will benefit from continued relatively ‘cheap’ foods, but their quality and nutritional value is potentially put at risk, as food regulations become streamlined or abandoned and new trade deals demand more corporate control over the types of technologies to be employed. Environmental regulations and support for hill farmers becomes marginalised and trivialised (as support for ‘buttterflies and birds’).

We should not underestimate the political power of this ‘bio-economic’ policy dynamic under current UK political conditions, and it is supported by corporate and large farming and techno-science interests. It largely ignores the fact that GM technologies are not increasing yields around the world, and that they have reached their limits with regard to reducing pests and diseases with the growth of ‘superweeds’. GM crops promised to reduce pesticide and herbicide use, and to increase yields. Currently they are doing neither. They are not reducing the production costs or cost-price squeezes for farmers either. Across North America and Brazil, production costs are rising. The number of US farmers who reported the growth of (glyphosphate-resistant) superweeds increased from 12% in 2010 to 27% in 2012.[4] Some commentators are now seeing GM investments as ‘stranded assets’.[5] Adopting late an increasingly failing set of technologies, and continuing to uphold an intensive model of production and supply would seriously increase agri-food vulnerabilities and reduce rural farm and ecological green infrastructures.

Brexit as ‘EU Lite’- ‘business as usual’?

The UK referendum result has also created a more pragmatic and somewhat incremental response by many organisations and stakeholders in the agri-food policy community. Here we can see the main farm unions, some business and trade organisations and, for example, currently the Welsh Government as protagonists. Having to accept the result, the response by these parties has been to propose keeping with existing EU policy instruments and funding for as long as possible (at least 2020), and then to advocate and lobby for the same types and amounts of funding from central UK governments thereafter. It wants both access to the EU markets and free movement of labour for the highly dependent agri-food sector.  The Welsh First Minister wants to argue for ‘every last equivalent penny’ from UK government in terms of both EU regional development funding and CAP funding, once the UK withdraws. The farmers unions also expect to keep with the same types of schemes, including the heavily administered Pillar 1 and Pillar 2 funding streams. Both EU regional development and CAP add up to an annual £500 million per year in Wales alone; a figure these advocates are suggesting should be met in future by the UK government.

In my view, though I understand the immediate political logic of such a reaction and stance in these uncertain and fluid times, I find this response largely implausible and unimaginative. Implausible in that I cannot see a future UK government supporting this regime financially; and unimaginative, in that it assumes the continued embodiment of a failed and largely regressive CAP system. This is also something of an inert reaction in that it suggests that  current policy instruments are working effectively, when we know that they are far too ‘siloed’ and reproduce all of the unnecessary  and costly boundaries between food, health, farming and restorative rural development.

‘Take back control’ and starting with a blank canvass?

A third and more provocative policy approach would be, having learned the lessons of decades of very slow CAP and EU reform in this field, to begin to reflect and start to build a new and integrated policy consensus and set of principles which would be both innovative and spatially tailored to the needs of English regions and the devolved countries of the UK. In Wales this is what we are advocating in our latest report[6] for the Welsh Government, and it may also be in hand in the emerging food policy reforms and proposals currently underway in Scotland.

This would be a more decentralised and place-based  approach to food security and restorative sustainability[7], espouse the promotion of ecological and economic diversity, encourage wider stakeholder participation from the increasingly widening agri-food policy community (including the civic , community , private and public sectors), and create a new set of clearly understood and communicated policy ‘design principles’ which would allow for local and regional agri-food and rural development capacity and infrastructure building. It would protect and enhance and develop small and medium -sized farms and rural businesses; and it would reverse the regressive and costly bureaucratic features of the current CAP in terms of payments and incentives for more restorative forms of rural and food development. Most significantly it would explicitly address the integration and policy alignments needed between food, health and rural-urban development ; and as a first step, bring together these fragmented policy communities, so as to build a new ‘Hobbesian bargain’ fit for the 21st century.

Currently the times are right, both in Europe and especially in UK (After Brexit) to open up this policy space and canvass, and to begin to build a new restorative and sustainable agri-food consensus, just as we did in the depths of the austere times in post-war Europe. Food , health and rural development need to be integrated and central building blocks upon which this public policy canvass is located and progressed.



[1] Food Policy as Public Policy: a review of the Welsh Government’s food strategy and action plan. (June 2016). Marsden, T.K, Morgan, K and Morley, A . Public Policy Institute for Wales, Cardiff University.

[2] TRANSMANGO: Assessment of the impact of global drivers of change on Europe’s food and nutritional security (FNS) (2014-18) see www.TRANSMANGO.EU

[3] See most recently for instance, Fresco, L and Poppe, K (2016) Towards a Common Agricultural and Food Policy, Wageningen University and Research. ‘There is a crisis in agriculture. A first misunderstanding..’ p21.

[4] Food and Water Watch, Superweeds (2013) Washington. D.C.

[5] Caldicott,B, Howarth,N and McSharry, P (2013) Stranded assets in agriculture: protecting value from environmentally- related risks. Smith School of Enterprise and Environment, University of Oxford, UK.

[6] Opcit. Food Policy as Public Policy.

[7] See for a fuller exposition on place-based approaches to food security and sustainability: Sonnino, R, Marsden, T.K and Moragues-Faus, A (2016) Relationalities and Convergences in Food Security narratives: towards a place-based approach. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.