This article is based on research undertaken last year at Cardiff University with colleagues in The School of Geography and Planning, notably Dr. Gareth Enticott and was funded by the ESRC. It provides an overview of initial findings on the knowledge production challenges Brexit is posing for agricultural/rural economy membership bodies. This is in terms of the volume of work they are undertaking to keep their members informed on current thinking and scenario planning regarding Brexit, Agriculture and the rural economy. These membership bodies include those working with agricultural businesses, the rural economy and wildlife focused organisations.
Brexit was a publically endorsed decision based on contested knowledge claims. In terms of Brexit and agriculture, many organisations are addressing the current policy vacuum and uncertainty by working to forecast future scenarios and communicate limited knowledge on the future for farming and rural economies in the UK. Both the UK and Welsh Government have established listening and knowledge sharing processes by working with organisations that represent key agricultural and rural sectors. Although Brexit can be seen as one of the most significant controversies of our time, there are voices in the agricultural and environmental sectors that view it as a significant opportunity for change. However, whilst media reports view farmers as being largely in favour of Brexit this research brings to the fore, more nuanced positions that foreground the challenges the sector faces as the UK leaves the European Union.
This research is based on 46 interviews with mostly food, farming and environment-focused membership organisations, industry bodies and welsh government officials. Half of interviewees were in Welsh based organisations and the project had links to the Welsh Government’s department for Environment and Rural Affairs. These organisations are playing a central role in knowledge sharing and listening processes as they work towards a way forward for agriculture post-Brexit.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
This quote from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ appears an apt reflection on perspectives surrounding Brexit. As a highly contested referendum that is now generating a number of disputed laws, Brexit is controversial. From the pub to the Cabinet table, Brexit invokes a range of deeply held views. From its legal basis, to the UK border and future trading relations, it seems that there is more that ‘divides than unites’ those considering its far-reaching effects. Controversies can be seen as issues around which knowledge forming processes gather and that generate ‘shared uncertainties’. The Actor Network Theorist Venturini (2010) argues that:
“…controversies begin when actors discover that they cannot ignore each other and controversies end when actors manage to work out a solid compromise to live together. Anything between these two extremes (the cold consensus of reciprocal unawareness and the warm consensus of agreement and alliance) can be called a controversy.”
With Brexit, the potential impacts of which are being debated, the effects of empty promises and impact of numerous contingencies has helped to create a problem with few “undisputable facts”. Rather to quote Latour (2004):
“To provide complete undisputable proof has become a rather messy, pesky, risky business. And to offer a public proof, big enough and certain enough to convince the whole world of the presence of a phenomenon or of a looming danger, seems now almost beyond reach – and always was.” Latour 2004
Whilst most people can agree that Brexit is currently comprised of many unknown potential scenarios, organisations have been coalescing around specific issues in order to attempt to chart a way ahead. Through the generation of reports, briefings, scenario planning and discussion on Twitter, Brexit debate is being publically aired.
Venturini’s common descriptors of controversies fit well with the issue under view.
- Controversies involve all kind of actors
- Controversies display the social in its most dynamic form
- Controversies are reduction resistant
- Controversies are debated
- Controversies are conflicts
Brexit and Agriculture is generating the association of a range of strategic actors, working to shape the future of agriculture and the rural economy post-Brexit. Many of these actors are membership organisations whose Brexit work engages with their grassroots, as well as governmental bodies. This work is responsive, adapting to dynamic circumstances such as changing scenarios, new governmental announcements and the ongoing Brexit negotiations, plus extramural work. To date, the overlapping scope and themes of reports on Brexit and Agriculture by these bodies, suggests that reductions, or solutions are not easily generated. Conflict and debate could be said to be at the heart of exploring future scenarios.
Whilst the complexity of Brexit and Agriculture work is undisputed, the work of membership organisation has been conducted via simple practices that can be summed up as: Dialogue –Fact finding –Analysing Data & Communicating findings.
The organisations interviewed for this project largely approached the uncertainty of Brexit for the agricultural sector/rural economy by attempting to form knowledge via engagement with members and government departments as well as undertaking data analysis. These knowledge formation practices involved joined-up programmes of dialogue and knowledge exchange to address some of the questions that the challenge and opportunity of Brexit raises. The Welsh Government Dept. for The Environment and Rural Affairs established a cross sectoral stakeholder group, joining up voices from policy-makers, industry bodies, farming, fisheries and environment-focused membership bodies, civil society organisations, businesses, charities and more. Many of these organisations were interviewees for this project and it was clear that there was much common ground in their perspectives, particularly in regard to identifying the impacts that Brexit will, or perhaps already is, having on food and farming. Plus there were commonly identified potential solutions for certain challenges. However thorny issues were also raised such as, contrasting and competing visions for the future of the rural economy along with differing perspectives on how new trade framework scenarios will impact food and farming sectors.
Dialogue, engagement, collaboration and participation are all practices that stakeholders, the UK government and Welsh Government have been undertaking. However most participants reflected that the UK government is ‘in listening mode’ and that knowledge traffic has been a one way process. Whilst many participants appreciated the reasons for this, it does not help address the uncertainty that Brexit has created. Many participants are membership bodies and are therefore, the point of contact and information regarding Brexit impacts. Most Welsh focused participants praised the Welsh Government for running their stakeholder groups. These were seen as being effective and an important forum for dialogue and knowledge exchange. However whilst information shared about Brexit has been enabling the formation of ideas amongst industry stakeholders, it has not been circulating more widely to public domains. Mainstream media has been more focused on day by day developments concerning the negotiations between the UK government and the EU.
A lack of information directly from Westminster has placed the onus on membership organisations to create information for members in the form of new policies, strategies and scenario analysis. Under Brexit, these stakeholders have become important knowledge exchange actors creating evidenced information that enables knowledge to circulate. The range of work exploring the future for agriculture and the rural economy has produced a wealth of new reports, new strategies, scenario plans, workshop outputs, evidence gathered, blogs, Tweets and more. As this interviewee quote highlights, all this has created significant labour for the organisations as they work to listen to policymakers, analyse evidence and inform members:
‘Brexit has become our biggest piece of work, and we’re forming positions, producing various reports…so as you can imagine, virtually everything we do in our role as an organisation has had to change…we’ve taken on extra staff to enable us to make sure members’ views are fully represented through this process.’ Membership body Interviewee
Whilst Brexit becomes the locus of activity for these bodies, what other important issues may have been sidelined?
Our research questions asked participants to explore what challenges and opportunities Brexit may bring. Across all interviewees (from Wales and the UK), the most commonly identified challenges were: Trade and Tariff Changes, Vulnerable Agricultural Sectors, and impacts to Labour of new migration policies. Closely following on from these were issues raised relating to changes to agricultural funding support and impacts on the rural economy. Across all interviewees, the most commonly identified opportunities were: import substitution, new trading markets and changing regulatory frameworks. The complex nature of determining a new funding framework was also commonly agreed as both a challenge and an opportunity along with the importance of developing a ‘working domestic agricultural policy’. Creating a domestic agricultural funding framework does raise a number of complex questions, particularly that of preserving the integrity of devolved matters. Westminster was seen to be listening but not offering information, which created commonly held frustrations and concerns regarding the future of UK agriculture and potential impacts on Welsh governance of agriculture. The uncertainty that was commonly referred to also created unease concerning future funding and regulatory structures relating to governance, farm payments, trade, labour and more. This raises questions of whether Westminster is taking sufficient notice of the remit of devolved administrations when considering new funding frameworks?
Brexit has created a huge work programme for Westminster, devolved administrations, industry bodies, food, farming and environmental membership groups and more. This work is ongoing and generating a significant amount of materials examining the future for post-Brexit UK agriculture and food. Membership organisations are stretched and will require resources to manage this demand and to continue knowledge dissemination practices. Information sharing practices are important mechanisms for navigating the complexities of Brexit, and are creating inter-sectoral dialogue. However materials produced are not of obvious interest to the general public and the work of these organisations could be said to be generating ‘knowledge silos’. The slippery nature of knowledge materials shared, which are largely speculative, has had little traction with the public more widely. Generating interest from the public will be an important step but will require greater certainty in terms of strategies and policy that envision change for the years to come. Digestible strategy and policy communication is essential. Media discourse has focused on the lack of progress, the lack of information and lack of certainty regarding Brexit. There is some need to translate the Brexit work created by industry stakeholders and others into public focused media in order to create a more diverse Brexit discourse.
 UCL Insights (2017). Brexit: Constitutional and legal requirements. Retrieved from:
 Venturini (2010).Diving in magma: how to explore controversies with actor-network theory. Public Understand. Sci. 19(3) (2010) 258–273
 Latour 2004a- From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik or How to Make Things Public