Farmers will have to intensify or die. Photographer: Bethany Clarke/Bloomberg via Getty Images

June 21, 2021   5 mins

I usually love this time of year: it fills me with hope. My ewes and lambs are belly-deep in grass, Matterdale about as beautiful as I’ve ever seen it. But today I am as hopeless as I have ever been — about the future of our countryside. The British government has signed a free trade deal with Australia that will not only do immediate harm, but also set the tone for how we’re going to manage the British landscape for many years to come.

I am not starry-eyed about rural Britain or the state of farming. My last book, English Pastoral, was about the mess we’re in and why. We seem unable to understand — or care enough about — creating food systems that reconcile farming with nature. There is, whether we want to hear it or not, a collapse in farmland biodiversity. Since more than 70% of Britain is farmed, that collapse is devastating. And yes, a lot of this happened under the EU’s frequently barmy Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

We got into our current mess by copying the intensive farming methods of other countries after WWII: hyper-specialisation; mono-cultures; ending mixed rotational farming; making fields ever bigger; using artificial nutrients, herbicides and insecticides; over-ploughing; and separating animal livestock into intensive systems that are grain or soy-based all propped up with an armoury of medicines, wormers and insecticides.

We took some of the edges off these policies by being in the EU, which regulated and constrained our agriculture (it was quick to ban antibiotics as growth promoters, for example — something that’s still legal in the US). For better or worse, we now have farming standards and sensibilities aligned with the EU.

Post-Brexit, we had a choice. Would we ask British farmers to compete with the rest of the world on equal terms — or not? Competing on equal terms under free trade would mean we’d have to follow the methods of other countries — probably of the world’s most intensive farming landscapes.

But we wanted something better on our islands. We were told that Brexit could be “green”, with farmers protected and rewarded for working with nature, not against it. We were told repeatedly by the Government that it wouldn’t sign trade deals that would allow imports of food produced in systems with lower standards. We were told that allowing them was unfair and would undermine efforts here to do better. Our farmers, we were told, would be asked to do exceptional things — and supported, but not through the blunt EU tool of propping up farmer incomes.

Many farmers were up for that. I was one of them. On our farm in the Lake District, we’re planting 25,000 trees, restoring three miles of hedgerow, restoring our old wildflower hay meadows, re-wiggling rivers and creating wetlands.

It is possible to find sensitive ways to produce great food, while helping repair nature in the British landscape. But when we signed the trade deal with Australia, we killed this idea stone dead. Now, we are asking British farmers to compete with Australian farmers on equal terms of free trade — regardless of the impact that competition might have. Regardless of their production methods and systems.

Welfare and environmental standards are completely different in Australia. According to the RSPCA, Australian farmers are legally allowed to keep hens in battery cages and sows in stalls. They can feed hormones to and hot-brand their cattle and take the skin off sheep in a practice called “mulesing” (perhaps don’t Google it). Of course, Australians can make their own rules and live by them, and you can make your own mind up about each of these practices. Not all Australian farms use them, but that’s not the point. The point is that all of these things are legal in Australia and banned in Britain.

The problem is not that Australian farmers are terrible or have an awful product. I’ve been on many Australian farms. They are fine people, and some are exceptional farmers (I have learnt a lot from them). They operate in an entirely different ecological and economic context, and the British people have a different sensibility about key issues. There is no credible defence for allowing foreign farmers to import their produce into our country, when they can undercut us by farming beneath standards we insist on here. Especially if this fact is then hidden from shoppers by vague labelling, or hidden in processed or cooked foods.

No one wants our farmers to achieve the scale of Australian sheep farms. The British landscape can’t scale up enough to compete, without grave damage to its remaining biodiversity. Ideally, we need a landscape of small fields with hedges, wildflowers, grasses, scrub and trees — which allow our native flora and fauna to thrive. There is no doubt that we can feed ourselves well from better farming, if we get serious about it and support it.

But this week British farmers realised that, for all the “green” talk, we are now being asked to do more (not less) of the things that got us into our current mess. Get big. Get efficient. Or get out.

There is, theoretically, an emerging system (called “Environmental Land Management Schemes” or ELMS) that might reward farmers for promoting public goods — nature — alongside their farming. But in practice it is nowhere to be seen, probably highly bureaucratic, and almost certainly lowers the income of farmers relative to the old CAP system — therefore increasing the pressures to exploit land more, not less.

The problem is ideological — it is all based on a misunderstanding that we can be as “efficient” as North America on our productive land and have nature round the edges. We can’t. We actually need patchwork mixed farming landscapes that replicate our native ecosystems. Farming intensification robs us of that. This isn’t debatable, it is the ecological truth.

In the wake of the Australian free trade agreement, we will be told the usual nonsense about cheapening food for the poorest in our society. (The people who say this don’t care two hoots about poverty in any other context.) In reality, cheapening food is more often a mask for the horrific cheapening of labour, and a sop for people caught on the wrong end of systemic inequalities. Let the plebs eat KFC — but for God’s sake don’t raise taxes and redistribute wealth.

This should be seen for what it is. A displacement. A scam. A government that won’t put its own land and its people first isn’t worthy of the name. It is little more than a self-serving ideological cult.

Farmers are drawing a simple and obvious conclusion: intensify or die. And this is a disaster for the British landscape: a total, unmitigated disaster that will unfold over the years.

Perhaps worst of all, for me, is that this deal has killed support among farmers for higher welfare and ecological standards and regulation. I can’t win that argument with my farming friends now — not now they’re unprotected from being undercut by imports. They say, “We are competing with lower standards … We don’t run fucking butterfly farms”. Sadly, they have to do what they have to do, and we will all be the poorer for it.

James Rebanks is a fell farmer and the best-selling author of The Shepherd’s Life. His new book, English Pastoral, came out in September 2020.