Damning Food Brexit Report Demands “Time to Get Real”

As the Brexit negotiations open formally, a new report makes for worrying reading on the implications for food, farming and a range of related areas. A huge number of interconnected problematic situations await the UK in its agri-food planning, yet there seems to be precious little of this planning being done, Food Brexit: Time to Get Real finds.

Westminster, London, United Kingdom – June 25, 2016: Young female students pro-remain protesters carrying poster saying “You stole our future from us” as part of protests against Brexit in front of the House of Parliament in London, UK.

“The implications of Brexit for food are potentially enormous. This verdict applies, whether there is a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit. The UK food system, consumer tastes and prices have been thoroughly Europeanised. This will be impossible to cut out or back by March 2019 without enormous consequences. The UK food system faces real challenges on food security.”

That’s according to a new briefing paper published by SPRU, the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex. The hard hitting report Food Brexit: time to get real (downloads .pdf) paints a stark and urgent picture.

40 years of agri-food, rural, health, environmental, consumer and other legislation have been integrated between the EU and UK. This means that new legislation is needed to replace 4,000 pieces of EU law relating to food. Moreover, prices will almost certainly increase with the inevitable tarriffs which define being outside of the EU, while labour shortages to do the work of food harvest, processing, and so on are likely with limits on the free movement of labour. Currently, over 30% of agri-food labour in the UK is migrant.

Professors Erik Millstone (University of Sussex) Tim Lang (City, University of London) and Terry Marsden (Cardiff University), conclude that leaving the European Union poses serious risks to consumer interests, public health, businesses and workers in the food sector.

Professor Lang said: “UK food security and sustainability are now at stake. A food system which has an estimated three to five days of stocks cannot just walk away from the EU, which provides us with 31 per cent of our food. Anyone who thinks that this will be simple is ill-informed.”

The report hones in on 16 key areas. Among these, food quality and standards are a concern: “a vast array of institutions and scientific infrastructure keeps UK food fit to eat. Brexit campaigners did not inform consumers/voters that US agribusiness is salivating at the prospect of selling foods which have weaker standards, nor that foods derived on world markets use standards which are weaker than the EU’s and those of the USA.”

The report predicts price increases of 22% for imported goods, if a ‘hard Brexit’ is adopted. While there is little preparation for this overall vista, the report notes that while “the UK has no food policy” “Scotland and Wales have been developing their own visions; England is the problem.”

The poor will most likely be hardest hit:

“Brexit could, all too easily, diminish food security in the UK, where parts of our food system are already far too insecure; this rich country is pocketed with real food poverty, for example, and diet-related disease is part crippling the NHS. We understand food security to be the achievement of a system that provides food that is sufficient, sustainable, safe and equitable. Brexit could, however, undermine all four of those aspects, in what is an already insufficiently secure food system.”

Clarification is also urgently needed with food crossing the UK and Irish boarders in Northern Ireland. Since the peace agreement of 1998, the diary sector in particular has become a cross boarder operation. Milk at various states of processing crosses over and back daily.

As reported in January: “About a third of milk from cows in Northern Ireland is transported across the border for production into butter, cheese and infant formula, Mike Johnston, the Northern Ireland director for Dairy UK, told the Northern Ireland affairs committee.” This amounts of over 800 million litres of milk annually.

Irish farming trade Union the IFA point out that “Overall, in 2015, exports of agricultural products from Ireland to Northern Ireland (including food, drink, forestry and animal by-products) were €750m, with imports from Northern Ireland of €567m.

The UK market is a hugely important market for Irish goods and exports in general. By comparison with the agri-food sector, however, there is a much lower dependence on the UK market across other sectors in the Irish economy, with Ireland exporting €15.6b of total goods exports (13.9%) and €18b (18%) of services to the UK.”

The report recommends that the UK government should:

Give a policy commitment to a modern, low-impact, health-oriented UK food system, and set out how that will be achieved, with or without Food Brexit;

Create a new statutory framework for UK food, which we term ‘One Nation Food’; 

Link this new statutory UK food framework to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the 2015 Paris Climate Change agreements (known as COP21);

Set new clear targets for UK food security (food supply, quality, health and consumption) which go beyond mere quantity of supply by addressing ecosystems and social systems resilience; 

Create a new National Commission on Food and Agricultural Policy to provide oversight and review, and to be a source of advice trusted by the public;

Make a clear and explicit commitment to address food matters in the Brexit negotiations which (bizarrely) has not been given;

Include in the above a continued but reconstituted, co-operative set of arrangements with the EU food agencies with regard to regulatory synergies in food trade and standards;

Develop an approach to food policy which is politically open and socially inclusive.

While the report’s summary concludes: “The realities of a Food Brexit are awesome. The British public has not been informed about its implications. Many people who voted for Brexit will be hardest hit by a ‘hard’ Brexit – people on low incomes, the elderly, farmers, people in the North of England. This paper urges politicians, civil society and academics who understand the food system to speak up and speak out. Brexit is a political construct. It should not be a recipe for food insecurity.”

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About Oliver Moore (129 Articles)
Graduated with his PhD in November 2007 having studied the sociology of buying and selling of organic fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers' markets in Ireland. Is published in academic journals and books, including the International Journal of Consumer Studies and the book Belongings (from the sociological chronicles series). Communications Manager and EU Correspondent with ARC2020.eu, a platform of 150+ NGOs campaigning for better food, farming, environment and rural policies in Europe.

A weekly columnist and contributor with Irish Examiner, columnist with Food and Wine magazine, contributor to lots of other publications, including the Irish Times. Regular contributor to on RTE Radio 1. On line, along with too many he's a contributor to websites like Glenisk's. He's also occasionally heard on radio talking about articles that have just appeared, or about farming/food/organics in UCC, where he give classes on organics, Fair Trade, CSAs and other agri-food related areas.
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