Why are British farmers pleading for a universal basic income?

Brexit spelled the end of EU subsidies, leaving farmers with ‘raw deal’ from the UK government.

Farmers from across England drive tractors, trucks and cars through central London in a protest against the Agriculture Bill on July 8, 2020
Farmers from across England drive tractors, trucks and cars through central London in a protest against the Agriculture Bill on July 8, 2020 [WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

A new lobby group in the United Kingdom is calling for a universal basic income (UBI) for all British farmers amid concerns that government funding to primary producers in England, arranged in the wake of the UK’s departure from the European Union in 2020, are not fit for purpose.

Basic Income for Farmers (BI4Farmers) set out their case for UBI in a report which was published last Thursday in association with the left-wing think tank, Autonomy.

In a foreword to its report spelling out the issue, titled “Sowing the seeds of stability: the case for a basic income for farmers, farm workers and food producers in the UK”, BI4Farmers coordinator Joanna Poulton wrote that “livelihoods in agriculture are often precarious”.

“A lack of funded pathways and financial support makes careers in producing food both hard to access and difficult to sustain,” she said.

Poulton said financial insecurity had taken a serious toll on farmers in the UK in terms of physical and mental wellbeing. “Finding ways to support these livelihoods will be critical to building the resilient, sustainable, and just local food systems we need,” she added.

The answer is a government-supported universal income for farmers, she said. In its report, the organisation, joined by about 100 farmers so far, has pledged to explore the design and delivery of what Poulton calls “a [UBI] pilot scheme … to collect data on the efficacy of the policy and make the case for systemic change in the financing of farming that is so clearly needed”.

British sheep farmer
A sheep farmer in the Yorkshire Dales near Malham, England, October 18, 2019 [File: Bethany Clarke/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

Why are farmers struggling in the UK?

Britain’s departure from the EU – also known as Brexit – has changed the farming landscape, say campaigners. They contend that farmers in England, the most populous of Britain’s four constituent nations and which makes up 53.4 percent of the UK’s total landmass, are getting a “raw deal” from the British government. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as devolved jurisdictions, would be responsible for implementing their own schemes.

Poulton told Al Jazeera that “prior to leaving the EU, many UK farms were essentially kept afloat by EU subsidies”.

“Eighty percent of the [EU’s] Common Agricultural Policy [CAP] was provided through the Basic Payments Scheme [BPS]: subsidies granted based upon the area of land kept suitable for grazing or under cultivation. Without these subsidies, between 19 percent and 42 percent of farms would have been unable to break even.”

Poulton stated that the UK government’s post-Brexit Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), and nested Sustainable Farming Incentives (SFI) – “the funding schemes being proposed to replace the BPS and CAP” – “do not provide the same levels of support”.

These concerns, which have been rejected by the UK government, have prompted calls for a farming UBI.

Furthermore, farmers say they have been hit hard by the effects of increased red tape, restrictions on immigration and higher import costs as a result of Brexit. A poll of 900 farmers by Farmers Weekly in May and June 2023 found that 69 percent felt Brexit had been “fairly negative” or “very negative” for their businesses.

Among the most negative primary producers were vegetable farmers (81 percent) and pig farmers (79 percent) who said they struggled to employ pickers and slaughterhouse workers as a result of Brexit.

What exactly is a UBI?

The UK social change organisation, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, describes a UBI as “a regular cash payment every individual receives, without any reference to their other income or wealth and without any conditions”.

UBIs come in various forms and have been trialled in the general population in various parts of the world, such as Canada and the United States. In 2017, the US charity GiveDirectly began a 12-year UBI pilot providing thousands of villagers in Kenya with a cash grant each month.

Proponents of the policy argue that it can reduce inequality and improve physical and mental health. But detractors contend that it is simply too costly to implement long-term, particularly nationwide.

How would a UBI work for British farmers?

In a bid to advocate for a UBI for farmers, “Sowing the seeds of stability” highlighted studies which indicated that weekly rates for a “fiscally neutral basic income” – 63 pounds ($80) for adults aged 18 to 64, 41 pounds ($52) for children aged up to 17 and 190 pounds ($240) for adults aged 65 and above – “can reduce poverty rates significantly, with poverty experienced by working age adults falling by a quarter and by children and pensioners by over a half”.

In its simplest form, “a basic income for farmers would be a regular, unconditional cash payment directly made to farmers and agricultural workers”, says the report.

It suggests that “favourable” sources for funding such a programme include the agricultural budgets of the UK government as well as the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

What do farmers say?

Farmers like Alice Rixon, 27, a small vegetable farmer based in Dorset, southeast England, say a lifeline of the UBI kind is essential.

“It’s very difficult to make ends meet as a farmer within the UK at the moment as we import half our produce and farmers are often only seeing as little as 1 percent of the profit from the sale of produce,” Rixon told Al Jazeera.

She added: “Brexit has impacted this further through the loss of important subsidies which many farmers had come to rely on as a means of income.”

As such, a UBI, said Rixon, “would provide farmers with some stability and security”.

“With stability, farmers would be able to spend farm profits on reinvesting into long-term, environmentally focused improvements to their farms, rather than living year to year and choosing the options that they can afford at the time.”

Source: Al Jazeera