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The EU referendum debate - Food Ethics Council survey responses

In May 2016 we asked stakeholders their views on the costs and opportunities to staying in or leaving the EU.


We’re working to raise the profile of food and farming in the national debate about the EU referendum. We aren’t taking a position on ‘in’ or ‘out’, but we believe that how we produce and consume our food will be profoundly affected by whichever way the country votes on June 23rd.

In May we asked readers of our newsletter to tell us what they thought the biggest risks and benefits were to food and farming of both leaving and staying in the EU. Here’s a round-up of some of the themes.

Biggest risks

Some of the biggest risks of staying in the EU were around reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (‘CAP’). It was felt by some respondents that CAP reform wouldn’t go far enough. At best it would be business as usual for farming, and at worst it could signal (alongside the EU signing the TTIP agreement) the imposition of American-style agri-business. 

Several people felt that CAP made small-scale family farming difficult, and they warned that more small farmers in the UK could go out of business. Others felt that the CAP was a one-size-fits-all centrally driven policy that ends up benefitting certain sectors or products at a cost to already squeezed UK farmers.

On the other hand, some respondents felt that leaving the EU might put small farmers and other artisan producers under greater risk due to the loss of the CAP subsidies. They felt that the UK government might adopt a neo-liberal approach to sourcing produce on global markets, which could drive the industrialisation of farming.

Others worried that leaving the EU would result in the abandonment of environmental and social regulations in the food and farming sectors. This, they suggested, might mean a loss of protection for biodiversity, wildlife habitats and other ‘green’ policies such as the Water Framework Directive and Natura 2000. There were also worries about the UK government rowing back on animal welfare laws if we left the EU.

Biggest opportunities

When we asked what the biggest opportunities were for staying in the EU, respondents told us that having an opportunity to influence CAP and Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) reform was key. It was felt that cross-European collaboration could significantly improve these policies as well as help address climate change and other environmental issues, and incorporate them into food and farming policies.

It was widely felt that staying in would give us more powerful tools to protect the environment and secure sustainable food and faming practices, as well as animal welfare.

Others mentioned research. International collaboration and EU funding for research and innovative projects could help develop more sustainable food systems.

A recurring theme among advocates of ‘Brexit’ was that leaving would give us more flexibility in farming policy. The UK could tear up the CAP and develop a fair, sustainable and democratic food and farming policy. This would ideally be a policy that integrated food, farming and the environment. It could also make government procurement of local food easier and more straightforward.

Leaving the EU, some argued, would grant the UK sovereignty over decision making, particularly on regaining control of our fisheries and our fish quotas, and investing more in our local food systems.

Others felt that leaving the EU might strengthen animal welfare, particularly around live animal exports. We also asked people to tell us one action that they’d urge the UK government to take regardless of the EU referendum outcome.

Responses included making a dramatic shift towards supporting better farming practices, shorter supply chains and better protection for agricultural and food system workers.

Others talked about getting the government to invest in and otherwise support local, short supply chains that aren’t solely reliant on the supermarket.

Some would ask the government to consider the impact of intensive farming on wildlife, animal welfare and the environment.

It was interesting to see common themes emerging across the EU debate divide:  more support for small scale family farms; the CAP isn’t working; the need to integrate farming and environment policies. Whether you’re for ‘in’ or ‘out’, one fact remains – our food system will be affected by whatever outcome. Whether it’s for the better or worse is all to play for – starting on June 24th.

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