Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Seasonal worker shortage hits home

Even before Brexit, a shortage of seasonal workers is hitting fruit and vegetable growers. A survey by the NFU found that almost half the companies supplying agricultural labour were unable to meet the horticultural sector's demands between July and September. The supply pf pickers for late season crops was only able to meet 67 per cent of the industry's needs. This marked a sharp deterioration from the start of the year when none of the labour providers reported problems finding workers.

Leading provider HOPs Labour Solutions said that two years ago 40 per cent of seasonal workers planned to return to the UK. That number had fallen to 24 per cent.

There is a perception that Britain is a xenophobic place, while the devaluation of the pound has reduced net income by 15 to 20 per cent.

British horticulture relies on EU workers for more than 98 per cent of its seasonal workers. Defra secretary Andrea Leadsom has said that more British workers should be attracted into the sector, but they have proved unreliable in the past.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The possibilities of a bond scheme

If the basic payment is withdrawn overnight in 2020 after Brexit or becomes a limited payment confined to marginal upland farms, the effect on farming could be catastrophic. For many farms, probably the majority, it is the difference between running at a profit and making a loss.

Some sort of transitional arrangement is needed. It could be a phased reduction in payments, or it could be a government backed bond which could either be sold to invest in the farm business or would generate an income from interest for a period of time.

I have been sceptical about such schemes in earlier postings because of the current low interest rate environment and that does remain a challenge. However, writing in Agra Europe distinguished agricultural economist Stefan Tangermann has revived the idea with his usual eloquent advocacy.

A time limited annuity scheme would offer a soft landing, and would be far preferable to a phased removal of the existing system of support that is still linked to land and farmers. As Stefan says in his article, if these entitlements are 'in the form of a bond-type entitlement document that is saleable on the capital market' this would give farmers confidence that the 'future stream of payments is irrevocably determined'.

With the current state of financial markets, however, it is open to question whether there would be a robust market for this "bond". Most recipients would, I suspect, simply collect their annual compensation payments, rather than exchanging the entitlement for a cash sum for investment purposes.

What farmers really want

It is always good to talk to farmers about their post Brexit hopes and fears and I had another good discussion in Yorkshire last week.

In terms of their hopes, they thought that there was an opportunity to create a more bespoke domestic agricultural policy rather than the monolithic CAP. A smaller sum of money could be spent more efficiently and effectively to achieve better results. This required a reduction in transaction costs.

Overarching principles were needed and the objective should be to make good farming easier and to penalise poor practice. Policy should be simple to operate and transparent.

What had to be sought for farming to succeed in the future was increased and sustainable productivity. This would in turn depend on the making the best use of new technological innovations, some of which were highly complex. There was a skills gap, so investment needed to be made in human capital.

There was concern about the continuing effect of the retail sector's race to the bottom which led to delayed payments and cash flow problems.

Temperate agriculture

A blog report on a meeting on temperate agriculture which is interesting on a number of levels, but in particular arguing that we need to take a broader view of sustainability, thinking of it not just in environmental terms, but also giving appropriate weight to socioeconomic factors: Temperate agriculture

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Brexit and food processing

By some measures food processing is the country's most important industry, but is rarely treated as such. Relatively few estimates are available of the impact that Brexit might have on it.

Boston Consulting Group, law firm Herbert Smith and advisory group Global Counsel have considered the impact on a chocolate manufacturer if the UK left the single market and the customs union without any trade arrangements in place.

It is assumed that the UK-based chocolate manufacturer imports most of its materials from around the globe, over half from the EU and a quarter from the rest of the world. It sells mostly in the UK, but exports a quarter of its chocolates to the EU.

Hard Brexit scenario 1 assumes that UK imports and exports are subject to WTO most-favoured nation tariffs. (This does not allow for non-tariff barriers which might arise, for example, over the definition of 'chocolate' which has been the source of tensions between the UK and the rest of the EU in the past). In Brexit scenario 2 imports are subject to zero tariffs.

Under the first scenario the company would be £4.2m worse off on revenues of £100m and under the second scenario it would be £8.2m better off.

A more fine grained analysis would take account of which were the key materials (e.g., cocoa, milk), where they were sourced from and how vulnerable they were to different scenarios.

In the quarter to the end of September British food exports to countries outside the EU grew at twice the rate of those to the bloc, 19.2 per cent against 9.6 per cent. However, the EU still accounted for 71.5 per cent of food exports, led by Ireland, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain. Exports to China rose by 62 per cent in the first nine months of the year, making the country the ninth largest destination for UK food (the US is sixth).

However, the trade deficit in food and non-alcoholic drinks increased by 6.7 per cent to £23.3bn.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Too cute to kill?

In the summer I was a keynote speaker at an interesting conference at the University of Surrey veterinary school which looked at the framing of policy on animal health and welfare and also the depiction of animals in children's literature. A report of the conference is now available here: Too Cute to Kill?

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Views from Lincolnshire on Brexit

Yesterday I attend a Brexit seminar with large-scale farmers in Lincolnshire and there was a very interesting discussion.

Among their priorities for a post-Brexit domestic agricultural policy was research on what would reduce the cost of production. There could be more emphasis in policy on supporting success, on what was likely to succeed. There should be schemes to promote successful sectors and make them more efficient.The social, environmental and commercial aspects of agricultural policy could be more clearly separated.

Policy should be more evidence based and there should be less reliance on the precautionary principle. Among some of those present there was perhaps a little too much optimism about how it would be possible to roll back regulations. However, it was recognised that any attempt to use currently banned growth stimulants would be blocked by retailers.

It was accepted that intensive livestock systems would lose out under future subsidy policies because they could not demonstrate a public good. Even so, the beef and sheep sectors could be in trouble, especially if tariffs were imposed on exports of sheep meat.

I was struck by how much tension there was between different sectors and even within sectors.