With the first phase of the Brexit process potentially almost over, farmers must choose which future vision they want to see for the UK food system, says Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City, University of London.
So they are off! But one wonders what is being chased and what the goals are.
Since the 2016 referendum, the realisation has quietly dawned that leaving the EU is not just about leaving or the nature of the leaving, but about deciding where we are going.
Indeed, is there an end point, or is the new politics simply to disrupt, disrupt, disrupt? Some argue Prime Ministerial advisors indeed have just that as the goal.
Wise heads also suggest we give more attention to what else might be on the horizon.
Let us suspend for a moment what we all think about the process over the last three and a half years.
There’s a lot of emotion whipped up about whether it’s been well handled or not.
There’s supposedly a strong mix of weariness (‘let’s get it over with’) and some naivety (‘why didn’t we leave the next week?’).
These reactions, I am afraid, simply show how ill-informed the public and most policy-makers were about trade.
Trade is never, I repeat never, a matter of flicking a switch.
Even in buccaneering times – think Sir Francis Drake – trade took years. Battles, raids, booty capture, even those take time.
Only an age which thinks video games are reality could possibly expect the fifth largest economy in the world to leave the world’s biggest market overnight.
The Johnson and May so-called deals were actually only Phase 1 of what will be at least a 3-Phase process.
Phase 1 is about setting the conditions for leaving. Phase 2 is beginning the negotiations. Phase 3 will be the tortuous hammering out of details before conclusions.
Most people expect this to be a 10-year process overall.
Let’s assume for a moment that Phase 1 is actually over. By January 31 2020, it might be, but don’t assume anything in trade.
I see at least six endgame scenarios. Let us call them visions, because they are all just ideas at present. Think ten years ahead.
Vision 1 is Atlanticist.
This means the UK replacing the EU with the USA as the pole around which we circle or towards which we orient.
It could mean we’re a 51st state (unlikely), but definitely means bumping up UK food imports from 4 per cent by value of UK markets to, say, 10 per cent.
Bye-bye UK beef except for the rich. Welcome to cheap hormone-fed feedlot US beef.
This might go down well in austerity Britain, but initiate a long fight over food standards.
Vision 2 is Globalist.
This is food from anywhere and everywhere. Why grow onions in Lincolnshire if you can ship them cheaper from China? Why have Spanish oranges if we can have Brazilian or Floridan? This puts UK food trade into the thrall of commodity markets.
These actually ‘trade’ only 10 per cent of world food production. So the value of sterling becomes critical.
Vision 3 is Imperialist.
Forget that the UK only has 14 dependent territories, with barely any food growing. The neo-imperialist vision is all couched as being about breathing life into the 53-nation Commonwealth.
This is seen by some as code for Australia and New Zealand. But they have pivoted towards feeding China, not the UK.
As one Australia minister said last year, ‘you can forget us feeding you, but if you want to locate food factories on our soil, perhaps’.
Others say: ‘let’s expand beyond green beans from Kenya and labour-heavy foods from Gambia.’
Vision 4 is outer Europe.
Delete Spain or Greece for olives or oranges, hail Morocco, Turkey, Israel.
Actually, the EU already has working trade deals with this configuration, so the delicacy here is whether the UK would actually be able to gain much. But it’s a realistic possibility.
Vision 5 is Nationalist.
There’s a good case for using our own soil, water and skills to produce much more than we do.
UK food production slowly declined since the 1980s. Land is plentiful. Although climate change suggests UK will be affected, there’s gain too.
More could be grown if we sorted out the labour force problem.
Vision 6 seems an outlier but is still at the edge of the table. It’s to stay in or later rejoin a reformed EU.
Brexit has been a shock across Europe. Many want to speed up reforms. The UK will find the Atlantic is a cold and cruel sea.
As older Brexiters die, the rise of youth angry at their assumed European identity will kick in.
Already, all political parties, yes especially the Tories, are vying over who can promise most spending to reverse 2010s austerity politics.
If outer England and Wales was hammered by Thatcherism and not pulled up by Blairism, the effects of Johnsonism are yet to see, so who knows.
And the loss of EU regional funding is yet to kick in.
I see or hear or read bits of all these visions across the parties. Listen carefully and you’ll note strands within the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet and beyond.
Dear Britain, the agri-food politics are only just beginning. Dear farmers and growers, think carefully what you wish for.
Tim can be found tweeting at @ProfTimLang