Employment

British farmers demand universal basic income to prevent bankruptcy in wake of Brexit

A universal basic income could save British farmers from ruin, campaigners have urged – and reinvent our 'broken' agricultural system

Farmer mental health

Farmers are calling for Universal Basic Income.

A universal basic income (UBI) could save British farmers from ruin, campaigners have urged – and reinvent our “broken” agricultural system.

Farmers feed the UK. But they pocket just 1% of profit from the food they produce, reaping a paltry 1p for each loaf of bread or block of cheese on our supermarket shelves.

Cash-strapped farms have been kept afloat by EU grants – but delays to post-Brexit replacement subsidies have left many on the verge of bankruptcy.

According to BI4FARMERS – a new campaign group launched today (4 April) – something has to change. The coalition of at least 100 farmers is demanding a universal basic income for all farmers in Britain.

“This would be a direct cash payment, made on a regular basis, to farmers, farm workers and food producers,” says Cleo Goodman, basic income lead at think tank Autonomy, which is working with BI4FARMERS.

“The current system is dysfunctional. But we are at an exciting moment, an opportunity to put fair work and sustainability at the heart of food production in this country.”

What is a universal basic income and how could it fix our food system?

The idea behind universal basic income is simple: a regular, no-strings-attached payment creating a minimum income floor for recipients.

It has grown in popularity in recent years. Last year, the Welsh Government trialled the policy for care leavers; and a basic income pilot scheme has been introduced in Ireland to support people in the arts and creative industries.

BI4FARMERS wants the UK government and the devolved nations to launch a similar program for our food producers. They haven’t settled on a figure for how much the UBI would be, yet, but are in consultation with producers.

“Farming involves a lot of unpaid work, crucial land management that is absolutely necessary but doesn’t have an end product that can be sold, so it’s essentially unpaid work” explains Goodman.

“Many farmers are in a dire situation.”

After battling extreme weather and soaring energy and production costs, farmers are often left with next to nothing. In 2022, nearly a third (29%) of British farms failed to make any money at all.

As a result, small farmers struggle to stay afloat. In 1950 there were 160,000 small holding farms. In 2023, there were 30,000 – an 80% decline in less than 75 years.

“It’s currently very, very difficult to make a profits at a small scale,” Goodman warns. “Something systemic needs to shift… but we are at a transitional moment.”

What support does the government offer farmers?

The universal basic income campaign comes as the government reviews how it supports farmers.

In 2019, the UK received approximately £4.7bn in funding from the EU under the Common Agricultural Policy. Without those subsidies, between 19% and 42% of farms wouldn’t have been able to break even.

EU subsidies are slowly being replaced by UK government schemes – but there are funding gaps. Uncertainty over trade deals could force half of farmers out of business, analysis by organic farming group Riverford suggests.

Jo Poulton, the BI4FARMERS coordinator warned that British workers are “overworked and underpaid.”

“A basic income for farmers would guarantee an adequate income, improving access to time off and reasonable working hours and making entering a career in farming affordable for new entrants,” she said.

A lack of new farmers is a big problem for the industry, confirms Goodman.

“The average age of a farmer in the UK is currently 60. So this is another really big problem – people with decades of wisdom and work under their belts are not only unable to retire, because there’s no one to take on farms, but they’re not able to take on staff to pass on that knowledge.”

BI4FARMERS like the nature-focus of the new UK schemes, which offer producers money to set aside some of their farms for nature. But small farms under five hectares are not eligible for the scheme, which leaves many on the brink.

“UBI could be an amazing part of a just transition policy, to help support people with environmental land management… there’s a real hunger for sustainable farming, but they need support.”

Poulton is herself a relatively new farmer. After working a desk job for years, she moved to Cumbria and trained in organic vegetable production.

But the barriers to new starters are immense, she explains.  

“A lot of the traineeships you find are voluntary and unpaid. If you don’t have inherited wealth or land, it’s really hard to find your footing,” she said. “I don’t know how I would have been able to afford food if I hadn’t been bringing it back from the farms I was working on.”

Financial insecurity takes a massive toll on the mental health of farmers. A recent study by wellbeing charity the Farm Safety Foundation found 95% of young farmers in the UK believed poor mental health was the biggest hidden danger in the industry.

“People just want to get on and grow food for other people. It shouldn’t be this hard,” Poulton says. “UBI is a solution. We’re really excited to see where it goes.”

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