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