Many farmers are already diversifying ahead of Brexit, but the UK needs to take this opportunity to completely reshape the industry - by legalising marijuana, says Dave Herbert, a South Welsh smallholder producing eggs and poultry.
Before the spectre of Brexit loomed large, British agriculture had long ventured down the road of diversification in order to offer solutions and opportunities for our nation of food providers.
No-one could argue a business’ ability to adapt and seek new revenue streams doesn’t play its part in securing many a farms’ future.
I wrote several months ago about Brexit being another opportunity for new growth, development and the generation of ideas.
When (and indeed, if) Independence Day finally arrives, we will see this is more vital than ever.
Sheep farmers may face 52 per cent tariffs on exports to Europe and the arable sector will see increases in costs related to fertiliser and chems.
More than ever, Britain needs to find the ‘X-Factor’ that will bring us to the fore in these new years of trading regulations.
‘But what more can we do?’ I hear yelled from some corners.
‘We’ve already converted a milk parlour to sell artisanal ice-cream’ or ‘I’ve knocked up a couple of teepees in’t top field for glamping’.
Think bigger I say – it’s about changing industries at large rather than about how you use your plot of land.
The poultry and egg industry are certainly looking forward.
You may recall a story in January where it was announced that scientists have been able to genetically modify chickens to produce eggs which contain proteins that may fight cancer and other diseases.
Before we get all jumpy about GM, we must remember that, even though it wasn’t being conducted in laboratories by scientists in white coats or by giants such as Monsanto, genetic modification was being performed centuries ago by people the West in all its hubris has largely considered ‘savages’.
Native Americans selectively bred and hybridized maize and other grains to become a hardier, more nutritious crop, and it is thanks to their work over millennia we have the variety we do today.
There is also another ancient plant which has been tinkered and experimented with over recent years.
One which started life merely as a weed but that now is responsible for an industry in Holland worth in excess of £2,000,000,000 annually.
Both Canada and Uruguay have passed legislation allowing for the cultivation and sale of this commodity, as have various states throughout the US.
I’m talking, of course, about marijuana.
Now it’s true to say that previously, other than a couple of strains, this was not a plant which thrived in our climate when grown outdoors, and when it did, it seldom provided the quality of product that today’s market is looking for.
Nowadays, with huge amounts spent on research and development, hybridisation and selective breeding have led to thousands of strains and cultivars of varying growth requirements and finished characteristics.
This is now a crop that will grow outdoors in the UK, and it would certainly work in poly-tunnels, greenhouses and barn conversions of which we have plenty of throughout our green and pleasant land.
It would even suit new ‘vertical growing’ developments and responds well to hydroponic systems - another growing industry in its own right.
Let’s leave the complexities and morality out of it for a moment and just imagine our Government decided to go down the route of legalisation and taxation.
For starters, there is an existing demand for the product for recreational and medicinal purposes, and as we’ve seen by the example of the Netherlands, a thriving tourist economy that generates additional revenue across a large variety of sectors as a result of their approach.
When Canada went down this route in 2018, demand outstripped supply and there were queues around blocks, reminiscent of the dark days of Soviet communism where similar queues existed for even a simple loaf of bread.
Britain could quite comfortably grow more than enough for its own needs, as well as an exportable surplus.
Even if the EU wants to continue to punish us for freeing ourselves from their clutches and decides to impose hefty tariffs, we would still be able to tap into other global markets.
There are the aforementioned countries, but also other potential trading partners in South Africa, Swaziland and South Korea.
Britain, with its agricultural heritage, its scientific capabilities and dare I say it, latent experience of a good percentage of the population, could lead the way in the global trade of cannabis, and all within a regulated and taxable framework that would generate revenue and potentially offer a life-line to some struggling farmers.
Even if we were to leave aside the psychoactive element and concentrate on the product in the form of relatively inert hemp, we would still have the ability to push a sustainable product into the marketplace in the form of paper, cloth and animal feed as well as any number of chemical derivatives.
There are a multitude of opportunities to be derived from such a course of action.
Yes, it’s a big leap, and possibly one too far for some traditional farmers, but I know a few YFC members who would consider arable over livestock and suddenly show an increased awareness in taking on the tenancy of a farm that had previously struggled.
I suspect companies such as ICI and Glaxo would look deeply into the same mechanisms that enable chickens to lay eggs with specific proteins, but with a view to passing on the medicinal qualities of CBD oils via the fat molecules within egg yolks or cows’ milk so an edible and effective medicine can be created.
Instead of looking for reasons for British agriculture to fail, let us look towards reasons to re-energise and re-fresh Britain’s image and trading ability.
Let us move forward and develop a brand new thriving industry that will leave the world green with envy and will be looked at as a global leader as more and more countries realise the benefits of decriminalisation, legalisation and regulation of one of the Earth’s oldest crops.
So, with that in mind, I’m off to put some Pink Floyd on the chicken coop stereo and find my girls a twenty bag until this thing is resolved.
Dave can be found tweeting at @hermitcrabeggs