Brexit – opportunities and unanswered questions from the Defra/AES one day conference

Andrew Moxey, who is working with CRE and research partners on the ESRC funded project Brexit: How might UK agriculture survive or thrive?reflects on the recent Defra/AES One-Day Conference “Agricultural Trade & Brexit.

As with last year’s one-day conference, Defra’s Minister for Agriculture George Eustice made an appearance.  And, as with last year, he championed the opportunities offered by Brexit and expressed confidence in the future international competitiveness of UK agriculture.  In particular, he was positive that UK sheep producers could compete with those of New Zealand.  Given the UK government’s apparent reluctance to issue analysis of economic impacts, and indeed to dismiss any that does appear, I am curious as to the basis for his confidence.  I for one do not share it.   Moreover, talking to other delegates over lunch, it is apparent that neither do many of the other agricultural economists who were present – whether they be academics, civil servants (hush!) or industry members.  Yes, some form of agriculture may survive, but the pressures for rapid structural change will be immense and it is not clear that the consequences have been thought-through.

For example, the environment did not feature in any of the day’s presentations.  Given the emphasis on ecosystem services in Defra’s own current consultation on future policy, this seems something of an omission.  What are the implications of Brexit and different domestic support arrangements for agricultural land abandonment, chemical usage and carbon emissions?  How might they vary geographically?  Equally, what are the implications for social cohesion and community viability in remoter rural areas where agriculture is relatively more important economically?  What support measures might be needed to help structural adjustment processes?  As one speaker noted in passing “one person’s efficiency is another man’s redundancy” (I’m reminded of a Mitchell & Webb comedy sketch about flint knappers meeting makers of bronze arrow-heads).

The modelling work presented (including two speakers from our own ESRC project) in the morning was well-received, but even in terms of farm income and production levels it has yet to get to the nub of likely structural adjustments.  Models at the economy and sector-levels may have implicit or explicit elasticities describing supply-responses, including how factor markets will adjust, but it is not clear how well these describe actual relationships on the ground.  For example, will land rental values fall to lower costs and encourage farm amalgamations?  How might tenancy arrangements and the tax treatment of land affect such processes?  Equally, how well do average coefficients represent responsiveness of highly heterogenous farms?   Despite considerable effort being expended on collecting farm data, I find myself reflecting on how little we seem to know.  Goodness knows how analysts working in other sectors are faring.

The afternoon presentations and plenary session sessions spanned a wider range of topics, and I gained some useful insights.  For example, the implications of Brexit for cross-border trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland, but also Great Britain, could be significant for all parties due to the sheer volume and complexity of trade flows.  Moreover, reductions in access to the UK market could affect the EU27 market as Irish producers seek alternative outlets.  Similarly, some developing countries are exposed to potential trade disruption if current preferential arrangements are eroded.  It is clear that the sheer number and variety of existing arrangements could pose a sequencing problem for bilateral renegotiations, and that potentially this could stimulate a revisiting of multilateral talks to revise the Agreement on Agriculture (although I won’t hold my breath).

Non-tariff measures (NTMs, previously NTBs!) are common in agricultural trade, but are difficult to measure and to incorporate into modelling analysis.  This partly reflects their complexity (e.g. some can actually be trade-enhancing) but also a lack of data.  However, preliminary assessments suggest that they can have a greater impact than tariffs and continue to distort trade even in the absence of tariffs.  This poses a challenge to modelling analysis.  Apparently, the UK food and drink sector is probably more exposed than agriculture is to such issues, so there’s yet another avenue for further research!   As an aside, I was depressed to have my doubts about the feasibility of resolving technical issues around myriad standards and bureaucratic procedures by March 2019 confirmed by several speakers and discussants: do UK Ministers genuinely believe that solutions can be found more quickly? 

Overall an informative and stimulating day, confirming that there is still much to do and to be learnt: the Chairman wryly noted the resurgence of interest in agricultural economics and even asked the Minister if he would reinstate the old MAFF scholarships for post-graduate work, but got no commitment (as to be expected in these continued times of austerity 😉).

Getting to know Berwick and its monuments

Artists in residence GÂST (Laura Mahony and Dale Fearnley) reflect on their introduction to Berwick-upon-Tweed and its significant venues.

Michael Stewart, Champion of The Ultimate Berwick-upon-Tweed Pub Quiz, has many stories about three of the town’s most prominent social venues: The Brown Bear pub, Spittal Beach Amusement Arcade, and Shielfield Park, home of Berwick Rangers FC. They have all witnessed action and emotion, jovial chants of celebration, and heartfelt anguish. All of these places are important to a very local community; while also having wider economic and social significance, highlighting the challenges of modern day place identity in rural areas.  They were all to prove important in our exploration of the town.

Within weeks of our arrival in Berwick, we had attended a plethora of social gatherings, from the Holy Trinity Church’s potluck harvest supper, to the Bear Claw Microbrewery’s open tap day, in a bid to get to know the residents.  Our first few days were spent venturing into the wider rural regions of Northumberland.  But we quickly decided to focus our efforts within our immediate locality, walking round the Elizabethan walls, joining the library, and ambling across to Spittal Beach. 

An angular, single storey, red and yellow “Venetian” pavilion stands on the promenade, complete with hanging awnings boasting “Ice-cream, Candy Floss, and Family Amusements,” as it overlooks the River Tweed greeting the North Sea. Inside, the ornate, silver and gold glittered ceiling contrasts with the retro arcade machines and hand written Keep Out signs. A white haired, flat-capped Yorkshire man, in a heavy raincoat, was working, changing notes for coppers, while his wife, the only other punter, entertained herself on the slot machines. He introduced himself as Don, and spoke to us at great length about the history of the building, once a fine dance hall, now the only arcade in Berwick, and how much he loves working there. It is a place where he can socialize with masses of visitors in the summer; a place where whole generations of families come to play hook-a-duck and penny-push, searching feverishly for spare coins in the hopes of winning plastic key-rings. We were instantly taken with the tinkling noises, the flashing lights, the distant smell of salt and vinegar on freshly fried chips and spent an afternoon there, drinking it in, playing the penny-pusher games and recording the wonderful kitsch splendour of the arcade on our new Instagram account. Bobbo, the dancing mechanical clown, was a particular hit with our followers.  

It is difficult to describe how we decided that these venues were going to be what encapsulated our residency, other than we felt the emotional weight of them.  Alain De Botton says in The Architecture of Happiness: 
Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or worse, different people in different places – and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.” 

The arcade may not be an architectural wonder, it is used and worn and cracked, but it is clearly adored by the community. We felt like different people in the arcade, able to laugh out loud at our losses on the roulette wheel, able to chat casually to Don, able to press pause for a while in an otherwise fast paced society. 
Shielfield Park was another site that caught our interest, after we took the Lowry trail and discovered The Stanks. This grassy area was used for many years as a football pitch, and more recently charity football matches.  We were very taken by the name, which reminded us of some previous work associated with dialect, language and sport. Skulking around the empty site, loitering in the car park between the home pub the Black and Gold and the main building itself, peering in through the large metal gates leading to the stadium, we realized the outskirts of the pitch are shared with the Berwick Bandits speedway course. It wasn’t until the following weekend we attended a match, Berwick V Cowdenbeath. In a stadium that was perhaps half full, we quickly realized we were on the slightly more conventional side of the pitch. Across from us, in what looked like a corrugated metal shed, was where the real action was happening. The Ducket, erected in tiered concrete, provides an area for spectators to stand and jump or chant profanities and angrily kick the enclosure in a glorious display of synchronized emotions.

Many of our walks, long or short, would land us in the pub for a rewarding pint.  A good pub could put anyone at ease and open to share conversation on personal and current affairs, in an environment where one ‘becomes the participator, rather than the spectator.’  The largest and oldest pub is The Brown Bear, with its gold Victorian ironwork, luscious heavy red drapes and chandelier – an ideal vantage point for observing life in Berwick.

Post graduates exchange ideas at their annual event

Ian Merrell reflects on the annual PGR review event which, this year, he and Katie Aitken McDermott organised.


CRE aims to be an inclusive place where colleagues can bounce ideas off one another and work together – and post graduate students are very much a part of that community of ideas.  The annual PGR review reflects that ethos and provides a welcoming, friendly, yet critical, space for the CRE’s Post-Graduate students to present their writing. This year they submitted a varied range of academic papers, thesis chapters and research proposals. 


As well as the eight post-graduate students presenting papers, staff members Sally Shortall, Mark Reed, Guy Garrod, Menelaos Gkartzios and Regina Hansda offered their wide-ranging expertise as discussants. The format has been adopted from the Trans-Atlantic Rural Research Network (TARRN) group, who prefer papers to be presented by a discussant rather than by the author themselves.  The discussant and others can offer feedback, concerns and questions, concerns and feedback, and the author will respond.


Mwana Othman kicked off the day with the introductory chapter for her PhD thesis. She is researching women small-holder farmers in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Prof Sally Shortall has a particular interest in gender dynamics in agriculture, and she raised some questions surrounding the social norms and religion of the area and how Mwana envisioned these dynamics affecting her research and the results. Regina then contributed her own global development expertise to suggest that Zanzibar appeared to have high levels of woman-owned farmland.  It will be interesting to see how Mwana’s research develops on this.


Vajira Balasuriya provided a draft paper he and his supervision team aim to submit for publication soon.  His very inspirational work is concerned with micro-finance to support female-led entrepreneurship in war-torn communities – in this case, in his homeland, Sri Lanka. He is approaching the end of his PhD journey (with data collection completed) and is now working on a whole series of academic papers arising from the research.  Sally Shortall shared her experience of researching women-led enterprise and drew from personal experience of Northern Ireland following the Troubles, providing Vajira with some interesting food for thought. She was excited to see the results of the paper and was interested in the framework he had applied. Mark Reed was able to offer Vajira tips on how to increase the paper’s impact so it could make a real difference to future practice.  


After a coffee break, we were joined by our first on-line long-distance participant – Rosmarie Katrin Neumann – who is based in Leipzig in Germany. Rosi is being supervised by Mark Reed and she is researching ecosystem policies for peatbogs.

Her contribution was a literature review looking at the role of trust in policy-making. Menelaos Gkartzios asked Rosi to consider the (non-)static nature of trust and how this changes over time, as well as considering spatial differences, prompting quite a lively discussion.


Next up was (recently Dr!) Beth Clark (congratulations from all of us again Beth!) Her paper is being submitted for publication and draws on fascinating work that spans both natural and social sciences – on a day when she had to defend herself in a room dominated by social scientists. The paper was concerned with consumer behaviour and attitudes towards Vitamin D – something that we in the UK are prone to be deficient in. Menelaos asked Beth some questions about the methodology and the (publishing) issues related to using a non-probability sample. I provided feedback and discussed with Beth how to integrate a policy-influencing argument into the paper.


Nur Bahiah Mohamed Haris is going to be giving a presentation at the Agricultural Economic Society (AES) and she brought the draft conference paper along for comments.  She is researching the adoption of organic farming in her native Malaysia and, more specifically, the range of underlying factors that contribute to this decision. Regina Hansda provided Nur with some useful feedback to help tighten both the narrative and statistics before she submits the final version. Nur’s contribution created a real buzz in the room with the debate spanning different topics – there was plenty to talk about!


Guy Garrod introduced my own contribution – a literature review concerned with entrepreneurial ecosystems in rural development.  He noticed that the framework appeared to confirm some of the discourse in CRE about rural areas as incubators for businesses. People felt that I could be focusing more on the positives of the model rather than the negative aspects of previous models. Vajira and I have very similar research projects and he also provided me with some constructive feedback. He thought the model would also apply to his research context.


Fiona MacLachlan was an intrepid contributor from environmental sciences and a very welcome addition to the programme. Her research, which is in its final stages, looks at the effects of Machair rabbits on a rare dune ecosystem in the Scottish Hebrides. Guy Garrod led the debate. He has a wealth of experience in land designated for nature conservation and was able to compare Fiona’s findings with some of his own.  Social science colleagues were, of course, keen to suggest ways in which Fiona could add a social element to her research and we look forward to developing some collaborative papers in future.


Katie Aitken-McDermott’s paper on different types of Social Enterprise rounded off the day. The paper explores the different models, ownerships and agendas of Social Enterprises and is the result of a sizeable literature review for her PhD thesis. Heidi Saxby provided feedback and this led to what was possibly the most philosophical debate of the day – wondering whether real life was influencing the research or vice versa. We also discussed the impacts of public bodies receiving fewer finances and whether this was driving the creation of social enterprises. Nur suggested that this model would also apply to Malaysia.


Everyone left with plenty of feedback to integrate in to their papers and we look forward to another event next year.  Thank you to everyone who contributed.