Brexit threat to safe and sta­ble food sup­plies

Min­is­ters sleep­walk­ing to high prices and lower stan­dards, ex­perts warn

The Guardian - - FRONT PAGE - Pe­ter Walker Po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent

The gov­ern­ment is “sleep­walk­ing” into a post-Brexit fu­ture of in­se­cure, un­safe and ex­pen­sive food sup­plies, and has lit­tle idea how it will re­place decades of EU reg­u­la­tion on food and agri­cul­ture, a re­port by in­flu­en­tial aca­demics has warned.

The study says min­is­ters and the pub­lic have be­come com­pla­cent af­ter decades of con­sis­tent food sup­plies and sta­ble prices for the UK, some­thing they say has been helped by Bri­tain’s mem­ber­ship of the EU be­cause of sub­si­dies and the abil­ity to re­cruit labour from over­seas.

Writ­ten by a trio of food pol­icy ex­perts from three uni­ver­si­ties, the re­port is pub­lished on the day David Davis, the Brexit sec­re­tary, heads to Brus­sels for a sec­ond round of for­mal talks with the EU on de­par­ture ar­range­ments. Davis said the talks would be “get­ting into the real sub­stance” of what had to be de­cided. He added that a pri­or­ity would be the re­cip­ro­cal rights of EU na­tion­als.

The re­port ar­gues that there has been an al­most com­plete lack of ac­tion so far in a host of ar­eas con­nected to food and farm­ing, in­clud­ing sub­si­dies, mi­grant farm labour and safety stan­dards.

“With the Brexit dead­line in 20 months, this is a se­ri­ous pol­icy fail­ure on an un­prece­dented scale,” said Tim Lang, pro­fes­sor of food pol­icy at City Univer­sity, one of the re­port’s co-au­thors.

Pro­fes­sor Erik Mill­stone from the Univer­sity of Sus­sex, who com­piled the study with Lang and Pro­fes­sor Terry Mars­den from Cardiff Univer­sity, said the lack of gov­ern­ment ac­tion was baf­fling. “It would be fair to say that we are sur­prised at the fail­ure of the gov­ern­ment to ad­dress a huge set of is­sues re­lated to food and agri­cul­ture,” he said. “They give the im­pres­sion of sort of sleep­walk­ing into this.”

The 88-page re­port notes that large el­e­ments of EU agri­cul­tural and fish­eries poli­cies would need re­form even if Bri­tain stayed a mem­ber.

But it warns that such are the ur­gent com­pli­ca­tions for food and agri­cul­ture given the de­par­ture from the EU, with­out a fo­cus on the is­sue “the risk is that food se­cu­rity in the UK will be se­ri­ously un­der­mined”, in­clud­ing dwin­dling sup­plies and er­ratic prices.

The re­port adds: “There are also se­ri­ous risks that stan­dards of food safety will de­cline if the UK ceases to adopt EU safety rules, and in­stead ac­cepts free­trade agree­ments with coun­tries with sig­nif­i­cantly weaker stan­dards.”

Af­ter 50 years of gen­er­ally sta­ble sup­plies and prices, the au­thors say, Bri­tain could re­turn to the sort of volatil­ity last seen in the 1930s and ear­lier, call­ing the scale of the chal­lenge fac­ing the coun­try “un­prece­dented for an ad­vanced econ­omy out­side of wartime”.

The re­port re­peat­edly cas­ti­gates min­is­ters for ne­glect­ing the is­sue: “The si­lence about the fu­ture of UK food since the Brexit ref­er­en­dum is an as­ton­ish­ing act of po­lit­i­cal ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity and sug­gests chaos un­less re­dressed.”

The gov­ern­ment’s ap­proach to Brexit talks has not been helped by ap­par­ent splits on the is­sue, which saw news­pa­pers run dam­ag­ing leaks about the chan­cel­lor, Philip Hammond, on two suc­ces­sive days last week.

Yes­ter­day Hammond said the re­ports linked to cab­i­net dis­cus­sions – one say­ing he called pub­lic sec­tor work­ers over­paid, the other claim­ing he said driv­ing a mod­ern trains was so easy “even a woman can do it” – were “gen­er­ated by peo­ple who are not happy with the agenda that I have”.

He told BBC1’s An­drew Marr Show: “Over the last few weeks, I’ve tried to ad­vance en­sur­ing that we achieve a Brexit that is fo­cused on pro­tect­ing our econ­omy, pro­tect­ing our jobs and mak­ing sure that we can have con­tin­ued ris­ing stan­dards in the fu­ture.” But, Hammond in­sisted, the cab­i­net was now “com­ing much closer to­gether” on EU is­sues.

The food re­port notes that with the UK im­port­ing 80% of its fresh veg­eta­bles and 40% of fresh fruit, a fall­ing pound and po­ten­tial tar­iffs

and costs from cus­toms de­lays could see sig­nif­i­cant price rises.

This could have par­tic­u­lar reper­cus­sions for poorer peo­ple, given the al­ready greatly in­creased use of food banks fol­low­ing seven years of aus­ter­ity poli­cies.

It says EU sub­si­dies for farm­ers, while some­times crit­i­cised, have kept sup­plies sta­ble. The gov­ern­ment has guar­an­teed th­ese will stay in place un­til 2022, but there is “si­lence” about what will hap­pen next. “If UK agri­cul­tural mar­kets are rad­i­cally dereg­u­lated, and all pro­duc­tion sub­si­dies ended, they will once again be­come chron­i­cally prone to volatil­i­ties of sup­plies and prices,” the au­thors warn.

“That piv­otal fact has been for­got­ten by many who have be­come ac­cus­tomed to the rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity in prices and sup­plies that Euro­pean and Bri­tish con­sumers ex­pe­ri­enced since the 1960s.”

The re­port high­lights the threat to agri­cul­ture and the food in­dus­try from un­cer­tainty about mi­grant work­ers, not­ing that a third of the work­force in food man­u­fac­tur­ing, the largest sin­gle UK man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor, comes from over­seas. “Given the im­por­tance of UK food sup­ply, the si­lence from gov­ern­ment on the labour ques­tion is as­ton­ish­ing,” the au­thors say.

An­other con­cern iden­ti­fied in the re­port is po­ten­tially weak­ened food stan­dards post-Brexit, es­pe­cially if a trade deal with the US man­dated the im­port of hor­monein­jected beef, and chicken that had been washed in chlo­rine.

Mill­stone said that while the pro­posed “great re­peal bill” would ini­tially trans­plant EU pro­tec­tions into UK law, it would also al­low min­is­ters to change th­ese with­out par­lia­men­tary de­bate or con­sent, with a gov­ern­ment com­mit­ted to re­duc­ing reg­u­la­tions. “This will ham­per not just food safety but en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion, em­ploy­ment pro­tec­tions,” he said.

Mary Creagh, a Labour MP who sup­ports the Open Bri­tain pres­sure group, said the re­port “sets out the truly wor­ry­ing con­se­quences of a hard Brexit”.

She added: “A hard Brexit will be bad for Bri­tish fam­i­lies and bad for Bri­tish farm­ers. The gov­ern­ment needs to pro­tect our agri­cul­tural in­dus­try, and stop dev­as­tat­ing price rises for Bri­tish peo­ple al­ready feel­ing the pinch.”

Tom Brake, the Lib­eral Democrats’ Brexit spokesman, said: “The Con­ser­va­tives seem ut­terly over­whelmed by the scale of the task and are in­ca­pable of deal­ing with the con­se­quences of the ex­treme Brexit they have cho­sen.”

A spokes­woman for the De­part­ment for En­vi­ron­ment, Food and Ru­ral Af­fairs said the aim was for a Brexit deal that would keep trade with the EU “as fric­tion­less as pos­si­ble”.

She added: “But we also want to pro­vide sta­bil­ity for the sec­tor when we leave the EU, which is why the re­peal bill will make sure the laws and rules we have will, so far as pos­si­ble, still ap­ply, and why our agri­cul­ture bill will make sure farm­ers can con­tinue to com­pete do­mes­ti­cally and on the global mar­ket.”

Philip Hammond on BBC1’s An­drew Marr Show yes­ter­day, when he said the cab­i­net was com­ing to­gether on EU is­sues

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