'Brexit can let the UK re-think its approach to farming'

Stock photo: PA
Stock photo: PA

David Hughes

Brexit presents a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" for the UK to rethink its approach to farming, the countryside and rural communities, a think tank said.

The extent of the UK food and farming sector's reliance on European Union funding and labour will pose "serious questions" to rural economies which will be examined by a new commission run by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).

The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission will examine ways to regenerate the environment and rural areas after leaving the European Union.

Barclays chairman Sir Ian Cheshire, who is chairing the commission, said: "We rely on the countryside even when we don't see it; not only for food but so much we take for granted, like clean water. It's part of who we are.

"We have come to depend on EU laws and money but they haven't been working well enough, and they are set for the biggest shake-up in a generation."

Some 500,000 of the 4m people working in the UK food system were born in the EU, according to the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission.

Staff from the EU fill almost a third of food manufacturing jobs and make up 17pc of the agricultural workforce.

"The influence of the EU has been fundamental to UK farming," the commission's launch document said.

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"Reforms to EU policy have shifted the crops grown, the methods used and whether land is in production at all.

"Of the £3.6 billion income made by UK farm businesses in 2016, £3.1 billion was derived from EU farm payments."

Since 1973 when the UK joined the then European Economic Community the population of rural areas has declined from 12.7m to 11.3m.

The UK's dietary habits have also contributed to a rise in obesity and the incidence of type 2 diabetes, the commission said.

And the past 40 years have seen farmland bird numbers halve and butterflies fall by 40pc.

The commission, funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, said: "We urgently need to ask ourselves: What kind of country do we want to be and what do we want from our food and farming systems?"

PA Media

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