Brexit: Death Knell for the UK Food Industry?

Jack Hughes 3 March 2019
Photo Credit: Flickr

Brexit could spell disaster for the UK food industry and, by extension, the UK food consumer. As the reality of a no-deal Brexit appears more and more probable, uncertainty regarding the food industry is a major concern. And yet it appears to have been a moot point for Theresa May’s government ever since the referendum, as the politicians pushing through Brexit have failed to realise the potentially disastrous consequences of breaking from Europe for a vital sector of our country’s economy which, once placed under the potential strains of Brexit, could collapse quicker than an over-aerated soufflé (I apologise to all Brexiteers for mention of a French dish – is over-aerated Victoria Sponge better?). Indeed, many experts within our country’s food sector, the farmers, producers, and retailers who are the bread and butter of the food supply chain, are unreservedly anxious about the tragedy: they foretell post-Brexit – disrupted food supplies, empty supermarket shelves, and families unable to feed their children because of inflated food prices. If a nation is unable to provide its people with food, what sort of a nation is that?

In the past few weeks, the government has been desperately cobbling together a plan to mitigate the potential disaster of a £9bn food-price shock should a no-deal Brexit occur, an apocalyptic outcome for the food industry and the UK consumer who could see the price of staples such as beef, cheese, and tomatoes skyrocket. The relationship between the UK and the EU is a deciding factor in the price of food: simply, close to one-third of the food consumed in the UK comes from the EU. The desperation of the situation is even more pertinent given the timing of these discussions; the UK imports a vast amount of its produce from the bloc (90% of lettuces, 80% of tomatoes and 70% of soft fruit: what is going to happen to our unseasonal eating?). As the situation stands, food is imported into the UK from the EU without the added spend of customs duties or other associated trade costs. A no-deal Brexit would mean that the UK would revert to the World Trade Organisation’s ‘‘most favoured nation’’ tariffs – paying such import duties would, according to the analysis of Retail Economics, lead to a £9.3bn tariff bill. The effect on the foodie? Prices of basic items could increase greatly, to the point where we could see shortages of products. It is not the art of cooking, however, that is threatened by these price increases – it is the great number of families already living on the bread line who are to see their access to good-quality staples stifled. For these families, every little helps, and Brexit as it stands seems ready to force upon them an even more austere lifestyle.

And where does the UK turn to make up for lost imports? There are worries that the government could turn towards countries such as the United States or Australia, whose product regulations, particularly regarding meat, are nowhere as strict as those of the EU. This could mean beef raised with growth hormones and chlorinated chicken. Brexiteers may quickly decry such ‘alarmism,’ however, they fail to acknowledge the serious risk this turn could pose for our population’s health, particularly the most vulnerable in society. After all, it won’t be the politicians who suffer – whilst they will be able to live it up in their organically-reared British ivory towers, the poorest will be forced to buy unsafe produce.

Photo Credit: Jack Hughes                                                                        When life gives you lemons… Where is the UK going to get its produce from?

Another crisis for the food industry is the issue of the workforce. 40% of migrant labour from the EU into the UK is connected to the food manufacturing industry, an unsettling statistic considering the number of migrant labourers who are returning to their home countries. The fall of the British pound following the Brexit vote and a perceived hostile attitude towards immigrants framing Brexit discourse encouraged many migrants to leave the UK, who felt that Brexit had left them feeling unwelcome. A workforce vacuum could be the consequence – as we grow more and more desperate to produce enough food to keep up with demand, the heavy cost of drafting in more workers could increase costs for the consumer too.

Quite simply, Britain cannot produce all the food it requires: only 49% of the food consumed in the UK is produced here. 30% comes directly from the EU (that’s 10,000 shipping containers a day), whilst another 11% comes to Britain under EU deals with third countries outside of the bloc. Shockingly, 70% of the cropland needed to cultivate our food is abroad. Rising costs are a major issue, particularly in relation to how long imported food in the future, subject to tariffs, would take to get from field to fork. Checks at the border could heavily disrupt the flow of food into the UK – the longer the time food spends at the docks, the shorter its shelf life and the higher the cost.

What effect does all this have on the average Cambridge student? Well, perhaps your food bill at Sainsbury’s may go up a little. For many at Cambridge, however, that is not a real problem. I ask you, however, to consider the market in the centre of our town. Whether you go there to shop, or whether it is a necessary conduit to lectures, you cannot help but be impressed by the vast selection of food stalls. Fruit and veg stalls with produce from all over the world, enticing world food eateries whose dishes rely on global gourmet goods – there is a bountiful mix of cultures, a real celebration of internationalism that would be unheard of had it not been for the UK’s admission to the EU in the 1970s. Our grandparents envisioned a European community based around exchange and mélange, a belief inherent also in food’s capacity to unify. We run the risk of losing that if we do not address the food question seriously. Imagine the market without the vibrant food scene that defines it. As a gourmand, I feel blessed to have easy access to ingredients from across the globe – food acts as an aide-memoire for the individual who wishes to be part of something bigger than themselves. Food brings people together, and this sense of community can transcend national boundaries. Let us not head into a no-deal Brexit that robs us of the food on our plates, and the relationships that tie us together.