By Nicholas Marin*

The UK farming industry is facing a turning point, a phase of change defined by a looming Brexit – even if we are in a 'deal' or 'no deal' situation.

For many farming professionals, leaving the EU presents opportunities for growth and development and could greatly improve the success of the industry. Many voted on the EU referendum based on government promises to develop new regulatory systems, improve control of public fund distribution and begin the integration of new UK-developed farming policies.

However, such policies can only be realised if the UK avoids a no-deal Brexit. This scenario will not only negate any inherent Brexit benefits; it will replace them with falling food standards and increased tariffs.

What’s more, as Brexit day moves closer, predictions of post-Brexit Britain have become far more worrisome for farmers. Unfortunately, the promises made to farming professionals before the referendum vote have not been realised in the Brexit deal which was presented to parliament this week. Now, many are concerned about other factors raised by current plans, such as the troubling prospect of losing an important and skilled migrant workforce due to harsh post-Brexit immigration restrictions.

The UK agricultural sector is dependent on EU migrants as they make up a substantial proportion of the workforce. The parliament paper ‘Brexit: agriculture' was released to the public in 2017 to provide analysis into Brexit's effect on British farming.

This states that, out of the 80,000-seasonal workforce in horticulture alone '98% are migrants from elsewhere in the EU.' This is not anecdotal and many sub-sectors involved in the greater farming sector are also heavily affected.

For instance, the British Egg Industry Council has provided evidence that 'approximately 40% of staff on egg farms and approximately 50% of staff in egg packing centres are EU migrants'.

Many farmers voted to leave the EU in the Brexit referendum due to criticisms and concerns about EU agricultural policies. EU agricultural regulations currently include farm subsidy systems costing the UK £44bn a year – systems which had failed to achieve any of its objectives last year. The Guardian newspaper has pointed to this policy as one which is 'among the most powerful drivers of environmental destruction in the northern hemisphere.'

These concerns are justified and must be dealt with to ensure that the farming industry can continue growing at a sustainable rate. Brexit, as it stands, is not the means to achieve that. The current state of Brexit is aiming to focus on directly reducing the migrant workforce, rather than develop upon its agriculture policy.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid has made this clear over the last few months of Brexit debate. He has introduced proposals for a new immigration policy, aiming to 'slash EU immigration by 80%'. This came alongside an immigration white paper that sets out new work visa options, open to ‘high skill’.

This is far more than the average pay of an EU worker in the farming industry, meaning a huge loss of labour after Brexit. This also ignores the reality that many workers in farming are extremely skilled at tasks which are sector specific.

The parliament research paper pointed to skills such as harvesting and crop handling as examples of needed niche skills. Access to these skills are severely limited within the local UK talent pool.

The government must recognise these skills if it wants to ensure that Brexit is a successful movement for the UK economy and the agricultural sector as a whole. Farm managers and recruiters have to prepare for a 'no-deal' scenario which will severely limit their access to skilled labourers.

Many have committed to making a 'Sponsor Licence' application to be able to access the overseas labour pool after the UK leaves the EU, meaning they can sponsor work visa holders. However, this is costly and timely, and many within the industry are already struggling due to the severely devalued pound.

Environmental secretary, Michael Gove, pointed to the fact that '90% of our meat exports go through the EU'. In a 'no-deal' scenario, these meat exports will face minimum tariffs of 40%, targeting specifically beef and lamb. This will cause a significant detraction for exports from the UK, forcing a much larger dependence on imports, which are largely from the EU.

The British Meat Processors Association made it clear to industry stakeholders that around 63% of the workforce of the British red and white meat processing industry are from EU countries.

Brexit can bring positive change for the farming industry, but the current state of it will negate this entirely, replacing it with a harsh cut to the migrant workforce. Worries of failure are only intensified by the threat of a no-deal scenario which will bring severe decline to the export marketability and food quality of the UK industry.

Regardless of the vote this week, the government should focus on ensuring that a no-deal Brexit scenario is out of the question before re-visiting the terms of the agreement with the EU and finding a solution which secures the future of UK farming.

* Nicholas Marin writes for the Immigration Advice Service, a team of immigration solicitors and lawyers based in the UK.