‘The prob­lem is we have an enor­mous im­bal­ance in the food and drink sec­tor’

Yorkshire Post - Business - - FRONT PAGE - Robyn Hughes

Brexit is loom­ing and the im­pli­ca­tions for our food sup­ply could be enor­mous, so is it time to start stock­pil­ing food? It started out as be­ing the ‘eas­i­est trade deal in his­tory’ and free­ing up £350m for the NHS. Now we’re not even sure we’ll be able to put food on the ta­ble. Wel­come to the roller­coaster ride of Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions and, de­pend­ing on how they work out, the im­pli­ca­tions for our na­tion’s food sup­plies could be pro­found.

The prob­lem is that we have an enor­mous trade im­bal­ance in the food and drink sec­tor. Gov­ern­ment fig­ures show that the UK only pro­duces 50 per cent of the food it con­sumes, with 30 per cent com­ing from the EU and the re­main­ing 20 per cent spread around the world.

Even those dishes we might think of as be­ing quintessen­tially Bri­tish are sur­pris­ingly in­ter­na­tional in ori­gin. For ex­am­ple, that full English break­fast we’re all so proud of is not nec­es­sar­ily all that English.

Only 46 per cent of the ba­con comes from Bri­tain with Den­mark be­ing the next high­est pro­ducer. Mush­rooms could come from all sorts of EU coun­tries with Ire­land, Poland and the Nether­lands send­ing a lot our way.

The Farm­ers Union put things into per­spec­tive when it said that the UK would run out of food within a year if it had to be self­suf­fi­cient. This warn­ing came shortly af­ter the newly in­stalled Brexit Sec­re­tary ad­mit­ted that the gov­ern­ment was mak­ing plans to en­sure there were ad­e­quate food sup­plies af­ter the UK leaves.

So, leav­ing the EU will have a mas­sive im­pact. Just how much of an im­pact, of course, de­pends on the type of deal we get.

A soft Brexit, which sees the UK stay within the sin­gle mar­ket or the cus­toms union, could soften the im­pact con­sid­er­ably. How­ever, stay­ing in the sin­gle mar­ket seems un­likely as the gov­ern­ment ap­pears to be com­mit­ted to end­ing free move­ment of peo­ple.

The cus­toms deal, mean­while, would avoid the im­po­si­tion of tar­iffs and bor­der checks but could in­clude re­stric­tions on free move­ment of peo­ple. Given the re­liance of the farm in­dus­try on Labour from the EU, that could cause all sorts of prob­lems for farm­ers.

Theresa May’s Che­quers Plan, mean­while, has been broadly wel­comed by the food in­dus­try. It would es­tab­lish a com­mon rule­book for UK and EU food pro­duc­ers which would go some way to­wards en­sur­ing a smoother tran­si­tion – both for those ex­port­ing to the EU and those buy­ing into the UK. How­ever, that ap­pears to have been ruled out by al­most ev­ery­one from the EU to her own party.

The EU’s favoured so­lu­tion ap­pears to be one based on its deal with Canada. This would en­sure there are no tar­iffs for the vast ma­jor­ity of prod­ucts, although they will re­main for some food goods such as poul­try. It would also mean bor­der checks which could add to de­lays and costs in­volved with cross­ing bor­ders.

The real fears come when we start talk­ing about ‘no deal’ and the bad news is that we’re talk­ing about it a lot. Talks with the EU ap­pear to have hit a brick wall in the shape of the Ir­ish bor­der.

Find­ing a deal which will keep her party, the op­po­si­tion and the EU happy is look­ing in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult, which is why the Gov­ern­ment has re­cently stepped up its prepa­ra­tions for no deal.

The out­look is pretty much bad for ev­ery­one. Un­der ‘no deal’, we’d re­vert to World Trade Or­gan­i­sa­tion rules which could be as high as 32 per cent for some prod­ucts.

Which­ever way we look at things, then, the out­look is worse than we have now. Food will be more ex­pen­sive; our farm­ers will strug­gle to find work­ers. It’s not quite the ex­cit­ing fu­ture many peo­ple hoped for.

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