What Brexit means for asparagus

As the British government charges ahead towards a Brave New World outside the EU, every day throws up new issues — all of which will have to be resolved, if only with a temporary fix, before exit-day.

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Photo: Evan-Amos

Some of the issues look large and intractable, like what to do about the currently open border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Irish Republic (part of the EU). Other issues — probably the vast majority of them — are small and, taken individually, not difficult to solve. But they do need thought, public discussion and work by government officials and MPs. When they all pile up together, all demanding attention within a short time-frame, it’s a daunting prospect.

Take one very small example that hardly anyone has bothered to think about: asparagus. It may not seem important but livelihoods are at risk, as listeners to the BBC’s
Farming Today programme heard this morning. Asparagus, like many vegetables, is a seasonal crop that requires a lot of labour for just a few months of the year and little at other times.

Andy Allen, an asparagus grower in Norfolk, told the BBC (3 min 44 sec into the programme) that he employs migrant workers from eastern Europe who live on the farm during cropping and then move to other farms for different crops before returning home when the growing season ends. He said he has tried recruiting British workers to do the job but without success.

Post-Brexit, this supply of labour would dry up unless new arrangements can be made, and Allen’s asparagus would be left to rot.

At the Conservative party conference yesterday, Andrea Leadsom, the minister for environment, food and rural affairs, suggested the problem of seasonal work in agriculture could be solved by using British “youngsters” to do the picking. This was part of a bizarre speech ridiculed by both the right-wing Daily Mail and the leftist New Statesman which basically showed how out of touch with reality she is. It’s a scary thought that only a couple of months ago she was in the running for the job of prime minister.

But apart from getting students to help out during their summer holidays or perhaps conscripting them in some agricultural version of military service, what are the options?

One might be to pay farm workers more money in the hope of attracting more British labour. That sounds like a good idea, since in any case farm workers are not well paid, but there would be consequences. It would raise the price of British fruit and vegetables — probably by quite a lot since labour is a high proportion of the overall production cost.

That in turn would make British produce more difficult to sell abroad and British shoppers would probably opt for cheaper foreign imports. Of course, we could protect British fruit and veg from foreign competition with import tariffs — in which case, bang go those post-Brexit free trade agreements the government keeps talking about.

A more likely solution is to continue using migrant labour but with the addition of various administrative and bureaucratic hurdles that don’t apply at present to workers coming from the EU. This would involve recreating something like SAWS (the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme) which the government abolished in 2013.

SAWS allowed migrant labourers to come to Britain for seasonal work with fruit and vegetables for up to six months at a time. According to the BBC programme it was quite a good scheme, though not very effective at coping with sudden changes in supply and demand. Nowadays, the six-month time limit would also be too short because advances in agriculture since SAWS was originally created have lengthened British growing seasons to something more like nine months.

Currently, about 70,000 seasonal agricultural workers come to Britain from abroad every year. Post-Brexit, they would all need to be issued with temporary work permits and possibly visas too. That, in turn, would create a lot of seasonal work for government officials. But perhaps Ms Leadsom can find some willing youngsters to help them with the paperwork.

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: www.al-bab.com. Author of 'Arabs Without God'.

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