Farming News - Brexit report: UK food sector in vulnerable position

Brexit report: UK food sector in vulnerable position

08 Mar 2016

Food policy experts behind a new report looking at the EU Referendum, which is set to take place on 23rd June, has concluded that voters must face up to the “enormity” of policy restructuring required if Britain leaves the EU. The effects of the referendum on the UK food system will be “Momentous,” according to the new paper, written for the Food Research Collaboration.

Called 'Food, the UK and the EU: Brexit or Bremain?' the report points out the huge task of unravelling 43 years of co-negotiated food legislation, which will face British Ministers in the event of a vote to leave. Under EU law, the agreed time frame for negotiating an exit from the union, including trade deals that would follow a state withdrawing, is two years. To date, no member state has ever voted to leave.

Professor Tim Lang, of City University London, and Dr Victoria Schoen, of the FRC said a vote to leave, and the upheaval this would entail, amount to a “Deviation from… the real task of getting the UK food system, from production to consumption, to be more sustainable.”

The pair found that, if Britain decided to leave the EU, food imports could be expected to become more expensive, prices would increase and there could be major disruptions to the finely tuned just-in-time supply chains on which the UK food system now depends. On the other hand, speaking to Farming Online in February, Professor Alan Matthews, who has looked into the outcomes of a Brexit vote in his work at Trinity College, Dublin said successive UK governments have sought to reduce the amount of direct support for farmers, and that trade agreements seen as desirous by the ‘leave’ campaign (e.g. with New Zealand and the United States) would likely see farmers competing with lower cost imports than if they had remained within the EU, even if they keep their support payments.

Public health costs

Given the price increase of certain goods imported from Europe, a Brexit vote could affect health and nutrition, according to the FRC paper; nearly 40 per cent of the UK’s total food supply of fruit and vegetables comes from the EU. As diet now accounts for 10.8 per cent of the nation’s total disease burden (compared with 10.7 per cent for tobacco), the paper authors said they are concerned by the implications of an EU exit for dietary health.

Defra ministers frequently tout the food industry as the UK’s largest remaining manufacturing sector. However, if the EU workers on which the industry relies lost their freedom of movement, there would be serious costs for horticulture producers and others who rely on seasonal labour, and for the food manufacturing sector - of which EU workers make up a quarter of the workforce.

Commenting on the paper’s release, Professor Tim Lang, Director of the Centre for Food Policy at City University London, and Chair of the FRC, said, “Our report outlines the real impact the EU has on UK food. The Brits need to stop joking about wine lakes, bent bananas and myths from the EU past, which have been sorted, and get real about security of food supply today and tomorrow.

“It is not simply a choice about farming – the decision will affect the entire UK food system and all of our daily lives. Food prices will almost certainly go up, affected by a weakened sterling.

“The UK is in a vulnerable position already with a food trade gap of £21billion in the red – we import far more food than we export. This is particularly important for health, with a heavy reliance on EU fruit and vegetables now exposed.”

Prof Lang continued, “If the people vote for Brexit, there’ll need to be a ‘dig for victory’ on an unprecedented scale. And this won’t be using the EU labour that currently grows, picks and processes so much British food.

“The public has been woefully ill-informed on this subject by politicians, for instance DEFRA has seven times more civil servants, despite massive cuts, than has DG Agri in Brussels. Yet food is perhaps the most immediate link between the EU and ordinary British people.

“This briefing paper argues that the UK should wake up to the enormity of unravelling 43 years of co-negotiated food legislation. If the country is to break away from four decades of hard-fought policy, we argue they should be provided with the facts.

“Our paper acknowledges the, at times, frustrations of EU food membership but asks the public: which is better – to use British muscle to keep working on shifting the food system in a more sustainable direction, or to waste years negotiating an isolationist position?”

Dr Victoria Schoen, Research Fellow for the FRC and co-author of the report, said, “Attention should remain on what matters most: how to shift a high carbon, wasteful and unhealthy food system at both EU and UK levels in a more sustainable direction. Brexit would not alter that challenge.

“A vast array of EU agreements, policies and standards now underpin UK food policy and a decision to leave would require us to re-inject these processes back into UK law.

“We know that progress has required a long and highly complex set of negotiations over the past four decades and a Brexit would mean beginning many of these again. However, the EU is not perfect and there are many criticisms of its food policies, which we highlight in this paper. It needs to move more quickly and more smartly – the EU’s new Circular Economy Package begins this.

“We argue that, with the level of food that we import from the EU – particularly fruit and vegetables – it deserves a prominent place in the national debate about the implications of Brexit. The UK currently has only 164,000 hectares in horticulture, out of 4.7 million hectares available for crops.”

The report was put together following debates and concerns expressed at the City Food Symposium on UK food and Brexit, held on 14th December, 2015, at which academics were joined by leading figures from the food industry and NGO representatives.

The paper can be read in full here.