How technology could help tackle Brexit

 

Much speculation has circulated about what Brexit will mean for farming, whether this is stricter labour rules, smaller subsidies or restricted exports. But in reality, nobody yet knows what is going to happen. So, is there anything farmers can do to prepare for the unknown?

So far, the biggest and most notable impact has been to currency, with the Pound losing significant value against the Euro and the Dollar since the Referendum – at some points hitting 30-year lows. “The impacts so far have been much less negative than many people were expecting,” says David Swales, head of strategic insight at the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB). “In fact, the devaluation of sterling has had a positive impact: When the Pound falls, agriculture does well. This is in part due to subsidies being paid in Euros (so the exchange rate is beneficial), and also because we become more export competitive, while imports are less competitive.”

However, what happens when the UK actually leaves the European Union is another matter. “We do not know what will happen and it is not clear what kind of relationship we will have with the EU, so this is something AHDB is closely monitoring,” adds Mr Swales. Brexit is likely to bring a range of opportunities and potential threats for UK agriculture, so it would be advisable to have a plan for the worst-case scenario while retaining the ability to capitalize on new openings.

“One of the biggest risks is access to labour,” says Mr Swales. There are large sections of agriculture and horticulture that are heavily reliant on seasonal workers, with more than 80,000 roles fulfilled by migrant labour in horticulture alone. “So, the real area of concern is if we can no longer access these workers. It could mean that we end up importing more food or may have to change the growing of produce to require less labour,” he adds.

On a more positive note, this may stimulate businesses to invest in infrastructure and machinery to reduce labour requirements, explains Mr Swales. “Cutting off the supply of labour may spur people into looking at new solutions.” However, this is only possible in some areas – and low profitability may limit capital availability. While farmers are able to use advancing technology to overcome challenges – such as harvesting broccoli[1] – there are some limits, including soft fruit harvesting, he adds.

Free access to the single market is the biggest concern as most of the UK’s trade is with the EU. The impact of losing free access to the single market will vary, depending on the agricultural sector, explains Mr Swales. “Sheep farmers are likely to struggle, as the UK exports more sheep meat to the EU than it imports, so access is fundamental. Other markets have huge import tariffs so it will be a case of finding new markets for these or else the domestic industry will have to shrink considerably.”

The other key issue is how Brexit will alter agricultural policy and government support for farming. “UK farming is accustomed to a certain level of support and some sectors are especially reliant on this funding,” says Mr Swales. “If this is removed, some businesses could be loss making.”

According to Charles Cowap, principal lecturer at Harper Adams University, the top quartile of farmers, across the sectors, are making more money without subsidies than the average farmer is with subsidies.

There is therefore huge potential for farmers to boost productivity and make up for the loss of subsidies, explains Ben Hatton, key accounts director at farm business software company, Farmplan. “Farmers need to scrutinize and question costs; which is where software can work perfectly in terms of management.” It is about comparing data, analyzing timings, assessing products and looking at the bigger picture. “Though many of the farmers using the Gatekeeper software are already benchmarking among themselves, I can see this becoming more commonplace in the future.”

Brexit is also anticipated to result in a big shake-up of food production regulations in the UK. Big changes to plant protection products are likely in the long-term, as many active agents have been restricted across the EU in recent years, explains Mr Swales. “The EU took a hazard-based approach to chemicals instead of a risk-based one, and UK farmers are hoping the Government will take a different approach. However, this is unlikely to result in much change in the short-term.” Any alterations to policy could be problematic in terms of trade, especially with the EU, if new rules do not match EU standards, he adds.

With so much that is out of farmers’ control, it’s vital to focus on beneficial changes that can be made, says Mr Swales.

Analyzing efficiencies, comparing different farm management scenarios, and implementing new precision farming techniques is something with which software and technology can really help, says Mr Hatton. “The more data farmers put into software, the more they can get out of it, making it easier to isolate where to make changes. This can then be used to forward plan management and can help to alter a business from being reactive to proactive.”

[1] University of Lincoln Press Office. 2017. Robotic harvesting of broccoli could be coming to a field near you. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.lincoln.ac.uk/news/2015/06/1097.asp.

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