UK farmers get a double hit: COVID-19 and Brexit

As COVID-19 absorbs most of the headlines worldwide there are other concerns in the UK like Brexit. The farming industry has been impacted by both:

  • COVID-19 – shutdown of the service that serves the farming industry – 1/3 of the lamb market has gone.
  • Brexit – a deal needs to be negotiated with the EU.

Brexit and lamb exports to the EU – when the UK was part of the EU it was part of a custom union where there was no tariff between member states but there was a Common External Tariff (CET) which meant that countries outside the EU have to pay the same tariff when they export into any EU member state. For Britain leaving the EU without a deal has serious consequences for the farming sector. Over 90% of lamb exports in the UK have gone to the EU but with no longer being a member state the industry will no have to pay a CET which will undoubtedly make UK exports more expensive in the EU market. The FT visit a farm in Wales to look at the importance of the Brexit negotiations – a lamb is valued around £80 but if the EU charges the going rate of tariff between 40-80% that would bring up the price of lamb to between £112 – £144 in EU countries. This would make it very hard for farmers to remain financially viable. Furthermore it is not just the farming sector as the UK’s overall trade with the the EU is significant:

2018 – 45% of all UK exports go to the EU – $291bn
2018 – 53% of all UK imports from the EU – $357bn

The UK produces approximately 60% of what is required to feed its population with the remainder being imported. The UK’s £110bn-a-year agriculture and food sector is deeply integrated with Europe relying on the bloc for agricultural subsidies of £3.1bn ($4bn) under the CAP – Common Agricultural Policy (explained later in the post). The government has promised to pay the equivalent of the CAP subsidies up to 2022, no one is certain what will happen after that. There lies ahead some major challenges in the UK and not just for the farming sector. The video from the FT below is very useful for explaining the impact of trade barriers and CET.

What is CAP?

At the outset of the EU, one of the main objectives was the system of intervention in agricultural markets and protection of the farming sector has been known as the common agricultural policy – CAP. The CAP was established under Article Thirty Nine of the Treaty of Rome, and its objectives – the justification for the CAP – are as follows:

1. Raise and maintain farm incomes, through the establishment of high prices for food. Such prices are often in excess of the free market equilibrium. This necessarily means support buying of surpluses and raising tariffs on cheaper imported food to give domestic preference.
2. To reduce the wide flutuations that often occur in the price of agriculutural products due to uncertain supplies.
3. To increase the mobility of resources in farming and to increase the efficiency of all units. To reduce the number of farms and farmers especially in monoculturalistic agriculture.
4. To stimulate increased production to achieve European self sufficiency to satisfy the consumption of food from our own resources.
5. To protect consumers from violent price changes and to guarantee a wide choice in the shop, without shortages.

CAP Intervention Price

An intervention price is the price at which the CAP would be ready to come into the market and to buy the surpluses, thus preventing the price from falling below the intervention price. This is illustrated below in Figure 1. Here the European supply of lamb drives the price down to the equilibrium 0Pfm – the free market price, where supply and demand curves intersect and quantity demanded and quantity supplied equal 0Qm. However, the intervention price (0Pint) is located above the equilibrium and it has the following effects:

1. It encourages an increase in European production. Consequently, output is raised to 0Qs1.
2. At intervention price, there is a production surplus equal to the horizontal distance AB which is the excess of supply above demand at the intervention price.
3. In buying the surplus, the intervention agency incurs costs equal to the area ABCD. It will then incur the cost of storing the surplus or of destroying it.
4. There is a contraction in domestic consumption to 0Qd1
Consumers pay a higher price to the extent that the intervention price exceeds the notional free market price.


Figure 1: The effect of an intervention price on the income of EU farmers.

The increase in farmers’ incomes following intervention is shown also: as has been noted, one of the objectives of price support policy is to raise farmers’ incomes. The shaded area EBCFG indicates the increase in the incomes of the suppliers of lamb.

Throughout most of its four decades of existence, the CAP has had a very poor public relations image. It is extremely unpopular among consumers, and on a number of occasions it has all but bankrupted the EU.

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