Britain is leaving the European Union. That fact cannot be changed. However, the deal, or lack of one, that is negotiated upon its exit will have a massive effect on the future of British food.

There is concern that, whilst debates rage over ‘divorce bills’ and trade agreements, food security maybe neglected. This cannot happen. The UK is not fully self-sufficient, only 61% so according to Defra, and food stocks don’t run high in a just-in-time economy. Over the years, the emphasis in the UK has slowly changed from putting agriculture first, to now using other country’s land and low wage labour to feed people. Less than 50% of food is supplied directly from the UK, while 30% is sourced from EU countries, making food security a huge issue with Brexit approaching. Consequently, imports massively dwarf exports. In 2015, the UK exported £18billion worth of food
and drink, compared to whopping £38.5billion it imported that same year.

Food Origins
Chart: Origins of food consumed in the UK 2016

The State of the UK

As food has become comparatively cheaper in Britain, but incomes have risen, the proportion of people’s spending that goes towards food is at its lowest rate for 60 years. A staggering 33% of people’s weekly shop was put towards food and beverages in 1958, opposed to an average of 10.7% that is spent now. Although for lower income families, a higher proportion of what they spend goes on food than anyone else, currently at 16%, therefore they will be the ones hit hardest by changes in food prices.

Britain is also vulnerable to the volatile global food markets, meaning it is sensitive to economic and environmental events, such as droughts or floods, that could cause changes in supermarket prices. As the UK imports a large proportion of its fresh food, it exposes consumers to fluctuations in the market price, as they are the ones forced to make up the difference downstream. There is evidence of this recently. Inflation is at a five-year high of 3%, causing UK food prices to rise at the fastest rate in the past four years. Instability caused by the Brexit negotiations has led to a weaker pound, a depreciation of 15% against the Euro since March 2016, which means imports cost more and there is a surge in the price of food, and even more substantially as Britain is a net importer.

Tractor

After years of consistent food supplies and steady prices, heavily facilitated by the EU, the UK government has become complacent, and without proper plans in place, could lead to a collapse in the food sector. While it may seem unlikely at this moment in time, as the current administration instills little confidence, but a split from the EU also presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to completely transform it.

EU membership stimulated improvements such as cleaner water, stricter food standards, and limitations on agrichemicals, but has always been lacking when it comes to leadership. By cutting loose, the UK has the opportunity to build on this progression. But instead, it is likely to expose decades of failure to invest in new food skills and infrastructure designed for sustainable development.

Separation

Leaving the EU also means that we are not required to follow their rules on food safety, and if the government chooses to engage in free-trade agreements with countries that have significantly lower standards, there is a genuine risk that our standards will drop. However, many have stated that the UK was the driving force in creating these minimum standards, so any countries we enter agreements with, will be encouraged to raise their specifications to be allowed to import into Britain[1].

It is very likely, according to Donald Trump, that a post-Brexit trade deal with the United States will be signed swiftly. If this is the case, consumers may be subjected to American turkeys at Christmas, which some consider “dirty” as they are washed in up to four different chemical disinfectants, and do not meet the EU safety regulations.

Nearly 45 years of food supply chain integration has resulted in roughly 60% of all imported food into Britain coming from the EU, fruit and vegetables in particular. However, the relationship is mutual. Europe is a significant market for Britain’s food exports, especially British lamb and beef, and cereal crops. It is most likely that, following Brexit, trade tariffs will considerably raise the cost of these exports, possibly pricing them out of the market. This is unless the UK government changes its policies subsidises the increase in price in order to protect British farmers’ interests.

EU %
Chart: Trade with the EU as a percentage of total trade for key agricultural commodities

Within UK manufacturing, food and drink is the largest single sector. Farms all throughout the country, especially those that specialise in fruit and vegetables, rely on seasonal migrant workers from the European Union. But with the instability caused by Brexit, the future employment prospects for this workforce look poor, and it will impact farms and their production, even prompting British strawberry growers to warn of a collapse in supply. So, with more expensive labour, a loss of subsidies that are unlikely to be matched by the UK government, and competition from cheaper imports, farmers could be a lot worse off.

Strawb

The Future

The jubilation from the administration following Brexit won’t last long if we see food prices sky rocket or shelves empty. Therefore, appropriate plans must be put in place so as to prevent this from happening. The secretary for food and rural affairs, Michael Gove, commented on the governments approach to local farming after the current EU system is erased, by stating there will be an emphasis on conservation and the environment, to drive further efficiency in the sector. However, with public finances as stretched as they are, government subsidies will be under pressure, meaning rural agriculture will be fighting cheaper imports, due to lower import tariffs, at a distinct disadvantage.

The current government has the responsibility to ensure a safe future for British farmers and consumers, via a favourable trade deal and productive polices, not just leave things to market forces.

[1] Afternoon Edition (2018) [Radio Programme] BBC Radio 5 Live. 22/01/18, 13:00.