2007 - 2021

Sacrificing Scotland’s Farmers on The Altar of Free Trade

Staff vacancies among HGV drivers – caused by a combination of disasterous changes to off-payroll working rules and an exodus of European labour following Brexit – have left many British supermarket shelves empty in recent weeks, with shoppers left to contend with crippling shortages of supplies. This situation has exposed the fragility of the UK’s supply chains and put the issue of food security on the political agenda.

In the short term, improving working terms and conditions for HGV drivers could alleviate this problem and incentivise a new generation of drivers to take up careers in the haulage and road transport industry. But more long term questions about Scotland’s food security – about where our food is sourced – remain unanswered.

The recently signed UK-Australia free trade agreement is the wrong approach and demonstrates that the British government has minimal interest in Scottish farms, boosting domestic output or increasing national resilience against food insecurity.

UK negotiators were weak and short-sighted. They capitulated to all of the Australian government’s demands. After a 15 year implementation period, all quotas and protections on British produce will be scrapped, and Australian producers will gain unrestricted free-access to sell into the UK market. The Conservatives tried to deflect criticism of the deal by claiming it will open up exporting opportunities for UK farmers and – because Australian beef and lamb is not reared in accordance with ‘expensive’ and ‘cumbersome’ health and animal welfare regulations like UK produce – it will result in cheaper food and lower supermarket bills for Scottish consumers.

However, this is a classic example of the Conservatives understanding the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Flooding our supermarkets with cheaply produced and inferior-quality Australian meat may, indeed, result in marginally less expensive shopping bills for Scottish customers. But this will be at the expense of Scotland’s farmers and our domestic agricultural sector. This is because the Australian deal sets a dangerous precedent. When ‘Global Britain’ soon begins negotiating free trade agreements with other great farming nations, like the United States, New Zealand, India and the Mercosur bloc, these countries will point to the Australian example and demand the same market access rights – zero tariffs, zero quotas.

The long term implications of this? Scottish farmers financially crippled by cheap imports of food. Undercut by competitors from abroad, the Scottish farming sector will slowly wither away and die as consumers opt for cheaper imports rather than local produce. Hundreds of small family farms face going out of business. Rural areas like Galloway, Ochil and Aberdeenshire will be particularly hard-hit by rises in unemployment and subsequent knock-on effects on business supply chains.

Today, 48% of food consumed here is imported. With the Scottish farming sector decimated, this figure will inevitably rise and we will become even more over-dependent on countries on the other side of the world to produce our food. This seems particularly short-sighted given the looming challenge of environmental breakdown. At a time when we should be reducing food transportation miles, supporting local farmers and buying more homegrown produce as a means of reducing our carbon emissions, we will instead increase our reliance on food flown in from thousands of miles away.

And what will happen, in the new few decades, if climate breakdown isn’t averted across the world? Farmland that is productive and fertile today will either be submerged underwater or transformed into semi-arid deserts scorched by drought, compelling nation-states to fiercely compete for limited food resources. People in Scotland – in the absence of having a domestic farming sector – will face both massive price hikes and crippling shortages of basic necessities as food struggles to be imported in. It will make the current shortages look trivial and insignificant in comparison. How will our society function?

Being over-reliant on other countries for the vital necessities of our national life, like food, is a strategic error and security risk. Some assets and sectors are too important to be outsourced and sold off to the highest bidder.

That is why policymakers must think long-term and heavily oppose the UK Government’s farm-killing free trade agreements. Having already destroyed Scotland’s coal and steel industries, shipped our manufacturing jobs to low-wage economies overseas, squandered our North Sea oil and gas reserves and gutted our fishing communities, Scotland’s farming sector cannot become the next victim of Westminster’s short-sighted failed policymaking.

Sacrificing Scotland’s farms on the altar of ‘free trade’ would not only be a moral failure and betrayal – as our farmers and their families have worked tirelessy to culviate their land over successive generations – but it would also be a tremendous act of economic self-harm and leave us weak going into the future.

Instead, Scotland desperately needs the powers to determine its own trade deals. We could sign smart and reciprocal trade agreements that put the needs of Scotland’s economy first. We could increase domestic output and shield Scottish farmers from unfair foreign competition, whilst simultaneously boosting exports of first class Scottish produce to thriving markets across the world. Much of the specifics of trade policy will be dependent on what kind of relationship Scotland has with the European Common Market. But the fundamental point remains – bereft of economic power, and left at the mercy of free market fundamentalists in the Conservative government, Scotland’s food security is inherently weakened. Reclaiming our independence and adopting a kind of muscular economic nationalism can remedy this.

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Comments (25)

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  1. Tom Ultuous says:

    Good article Stuart. Why is this not blindingly obvious to the clowns in Westminster. Rees-Mogg (stretched out on the commons sofa) would say “The common sense thing to do in an end-of-days type situation would be to phone Just Eat”.

  2. Colin Robinson says:

    Lots of circles needing to be squared here.

    Why is a new generation of drivers to be incentivised to take up careers in the haulage and road transport industry when a) that industry is working towards ‘autonomous haulage solutions’ (i.e. driverless vehicles) and b) environmentalists are stressing the need to scale back or road transport in favour of greener alternatives? There’s no future in trucking. Why should anyone consider it as a ‘career’?

    And why is it right to pursue domestic growth in production in the farming industry when it’s wrong to pursue domestic growth in the oil industry? Both indeed ensure that we import less from less scrupulous overseas producers, thus maintaining both the quality and the security of our food and energy.

    Except that, since neither sector’s product can, without protectionism, command sufficient price in the domestic market to make its production profitable, both produce mainly for the export rather than for the domestic market; so that argument holds for neither.

    And why is domestic growth in our agricultural production to be pursued in any case, when environmentalists are insisting that we all should be consuming less and degrowing our economies accordingly?

    1. Wul says:

      Don’t suppose you have any holidays planned “Colin”?

      Somewhere nice and peaceful…no internet?

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        I’m heading abroad to Stonehaven for a couple of days later this month. I’m sure they’ll have internet access there. I believe the bus there and back (at least between Dumfries and Aberdeen) will also have internet access. So, I’ll still be able to work.

  3. Axel P Kulit says:

    Surely the benefit to the Tories is that as farms die there is more cheap land to sell to their developer mates, while taking a slice of the profits.

  4. Antoine d'Ysart Bisset says:

    This article is spot on! For far too long we have allowed the competition between supermarkets to drive prices down, with not much regard for quality.
    We need to accept that to eat well we need to eat British produce and pay for it accordingly. A side effect of this is to ensure food security which is essential to any nation.

    1. Niemand says:

      I agree. I have thought for decades that we have become used to very cheap food and that has to change so that we pay what is needed to support a homegrown farming industry with all the safeguards and welfare we apparently prize. But how many politicians would be brave and honest enough to embrace this incontrovertible fact: things need to cost more in the shops? It would be the kind of politician I would really respect.

  5. johnny english says:

    What a comical article. Where is scotland’s food sourced ponders Gray but curiously fails to answer his own question. Little wonder, since the majority of produce on sale in scotland is sourced from England. But we English do not enjoy the same privileges as the ‘celtic’ aristocracy and our food products have to be branded with the union jack instead of the hated English flag so as not to offend the sensitivities of those privileged ‘celts’. Imagine the scene if English people enjoyed the same privileges! the shelves of scotland’s shops would be filled with products bearing the forbidden English flag!! the scots would starve, since protocol demands that every true scot must demonstrate their hatred of all things English at all times; they would stamp on the sausages, spit on the fruit and throw the hummus into the canals. Not a prospect that today’s ‘celtic’ aristocracy wants to dwell on and, frankly, why bother? today’s ‘celt’ lives as a colonial aristocracy taking from the English and hating them as they see fit just as they lived as colonial aristocracy in other parts of the world in bygone years. what wonderful and good people these ‘celts’ are and in no way will they be hated in equal measure in return.

    best
    some english untermensch

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      There is that. But more importantly, there is ‘Scotland’ the brand, which is the creature of Tory nationalists, who can trace their ancestry to Sir Walter Scott, and to which we’ve formed a deep emotional attached as nationalists generally. This is the ‘Scotland’ of romance, saltires, homeland, and ‘wha’s like us’ exceptionalism. We guard this brand jealously and insist on it being advertised freely as an expression of our national identity.

      Of course, away from all this Tory ‘heimat’ nonsense, the only thing that identifies us as ‘Scots’ really is the fact that we’re collectively subject to the jurisdiction of the same geographically defined civic régime.

    2. Niemand says:

      You might struggle finding a canal in Scotland for the hummus, or anywhere in the UK to grow the chick peas for that matter.

      The irony to this argument is that my impression is that the flag of St George might go down better on food products in Scotland than the Union Jack, at least among nationalists who see the UJ as simply a sly and thus dishonest cipher for England anyway. Your anger at the lack of use of the English flag and its misleading replacement is shared north of the border.

  6. Tom Ultuous says:

    Before the Australian deal hit the news there was a leaked Tory document that suggested there was no need for farmers. If you ask me the Australian deal is all about the Tories outsourcing the “UK”‘s CO2 emissions. Per capita, the “UK”‘s emissions are about 40% of the likes of Canada or the US. Considering the “UK” doesn’t make much we’re surprisingly not far behind China. Good business for the Tory party cutting CO2 emissions without inconveniencing your voters. As Stuart points out though their children will pay the price by eating grass.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Yes, this is the notion that CAP payments could be replaced by a system of subsidies that ‘spend public money on things that have public value that are not sufficiently provided by the market – including enhancing our environment and protecting our countryside’; basically, to deindustrialise our agriculture by exporting it. Our farmers would thus be freed up from cultivating land for food and paid to curate it as environment instead.

      Crazy! Placing our food security in the hands of foreign Johnnies. Mark my words, we’ll all end up eating grass.

  7. Rosie says:

    UK Farming is dead.
    Just as fishing, music industry, model authors, actors, roadies and a few dozen more.
    Welcome to Brexit.

  8. Ian May says:

    Possibly farmers may go back to farming instead of being paid by European subsidies and we will get better products home grown.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Aye, but who’ll buy those products, Ian? British farmers have largely priced themselves out of the domestic mass market. The hoi polloi largely can’t afford the prices British farmers need to charge in order to keep their businesses viable.

      1. Niemand says:

        Cannot afford it or won’t afford it? I have never bought this argument and it is trotted out with zero evidence. Food is not expensive – it all depends what you prioritise. I imagine only a tiny percentage of folk in the UK would struggle to pay British farming food bills if they really had to. In real terms food is cheaper than it used to be, with some products actually being sold at a loss.

        The whole market is badly skewed and it needs to change; we have to stop the mantra that says everything must be dictated by the lowest price. I agree that some now very impractical types of farming like sheep farming in the Welsh mountains is untenable and farmers becoming environment custodians instead (Monbiot has advocated this post Brexit), but that is not an argument to give up on UK farming as a means to try and supply the majority of food to the nation at affordable but realistic prices.

        1. Colin Robinson says:

          You’re right; affordability is relative to the choices we make. The hoi polloi by and large chooses to spend less of its income on food so it will have more to spend on other things. Why that is I’ve no idea. Something to do with aspiration, I imagine, or thrift, or custom and habit.

          I’m often found among the kettle of auld anes scavenging the ‘Reduced’ shelves of the local Co-op for bargains. Not because I need to; I just don’t see why I should have to spend £1.99 on a pound of sausages when I can get away with 49p, leaving me £1.50 to the good – tight-fisted get that I am! But that’s the choice I make.

  9. Wul says:

    The Contractor UK web site, linked in the article states:
    “Low-profit margin logistics businesses (typically 2-3%) cannot sustain demands for £5-£6 per hour rate increases.”

    I had no idea that haulage companies ( or indeed any companies) were operating with such low margins! It seems highly unsustainable. I have to ask why this is? Why the race to move consumer goods as cheaply as humanly possible? What is driving this?

    Amazon et al have decided that, as a consumer, I “demand” free, same-day delivery of my purchases, even on a Sunday. I actually find the extremely low or free delivery cost weird and worrisome. How is it even possible?
    As an adult, I am quite happy to wait a few days for things to be delivered during the working week and day. I understand that there is a cost to delivering “my stuff” and I am more than happy to pay it.

    These huge companies and supermarkets are all buying “market share” at the expense of their workforce, suppliers and contractors. Their rush to put each other out of business and lower standards to the gutter is obscene and will leave a desolate society for us all.

    How to we get to paying each other properly for our work?

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      What’s currently stopping you from properly paying the people who work for you?

      I reckon we should be able to hire our own porters and waiters to deliver our goods and wait our tables, rather than leave them in the employ of the profiteer; e.g. by having labour and employers’ insurance and pension contributions added at the living wage rate as a separate item on our bills. Then we could, if we wanted, ensure that we properly paid the people who work for us.

      It cracks me up that we happily allow people to serve us in shops, cafes, takeaways, distribution centres, etc. when we know full well that they’re only being paid a pittance to do so. As Tolstoy said: “I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means – except by getting off his back.”

      1. Wul says:

        “What’s currently stopping you from properly paying the people who work for you?”

        Nothing. I can and do pay properly and promptly whenever I can. By “properly” I mean a rate that allows a person to eat, make a living, buy a home, take a holiday, have a pension, take a day off sick, raise a child etc etc.

        I even put money in envelopes to give to delivery drivers but they are often too quick for me and all I see is someone’s back jumping into a van.

        How do you “pay properly” in a supermarket or buying on-line? Other than avoiding spending money there? (I do that too, if possible)

        1. Colin Robinson says:

          That’s why I’m suggesting that, through the agency of government, we transfer the employment of our service deliverers away from the profiteer and towards the consumer. That is, by paying the service deliverer directly for their labour as a separate cost from that of the goods they deliver.

          Hint: it’s a way of taking labour out of private and into public ownership.

  10. Mai Parks says:

    We need to get to fcuk from this rat infested money grabbing union. Sadly, lots of farmers and fishers voted for Brexit as well as voted tory . They voted for their own extinction.

    1. Wul says:

      Yeah.

      When your own government allows Spanish boats to fish off your coast because they did a deal behind your back, guess what? Your quarrel isn’t with Spain. Who knew?

  11. SleepingDog says:

    “48% of food consumed here” by what? Weight? Calories? Volume? Retail price? Category? Something else?

    Anyway, thinking about that infographic and animal welfare standards, such deals reinforce the case for turning to (largely) meatless agriculture we will presumably be needing to survive.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      I believe the UK government measures consumption in terms of the farm-gate value of unprocessed food. So, that would be 48% of the farm-gate value of unprocessed food consumed in the UK is imported. Over half of that (26% in total) is from EU countries.

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