1815 to 1870 was the golden age for British farming. Early industrialisation brought burgeoning urban populations which, combined with high tariffs on imported cereals created by the 1815 ‘Corn Laws’, kept food prices and farm rents high. Through controlling the food available, farmers and landowners prospered at the expense of the urban poor and invested heavily in their farms; arguably a bucolic rural idyll was built on the back of desperate urban poverty. The Corn Laws were repealed in 1846; this, combined with new shipping and rail routes that opened the fertile US prairies to the plough, meant cereal imports rocketed and led to a collapse in UK grain prices and farm rents post 1870. Bar a brief let-up in WW1, the rural recession lasted until we were again threatened with dire food shortages by Germany’s U boats in WW2, exposing the risks of relying on global markets to feed us.
Post-war, UK and then EU farming subsidies brought a partial return to stability, prosperity and investment in farming over the last 60 years. I would argue its rules have also protected us from the most extreme and environmentally damaging versions of “free market” farming seen in the USA: lax pesticide regulation, vast intensive animal feedlots, the worst antibiotic abuse, soil loss, depopulated villages and hormone-injected cattle.
Judging by the limited information emerging from May’s discussions with Trump, it seems likely that farming, food safety and animal welfare will be sacrificed in a rush to the unregulated bottom that is World Trade Organization rules. Perhaps we could compete on world markets if farmers were free to bulldoze hedges, fell trees, pollute waterways and abuse their livestock, but I
doubt that is what Leave voters envisaged on June 23rd last year. Our island is too small and there are too many other legitimate stakeholders who want a say in how our food is produced and countryside managed. Welcome to an uncertain world in which we need to keep our eyes firmly on ensuring a decent food supply for all.
With thanks to Professor Tim Lang for inspiration and editing.