Silence of the Brexit Lambs: The Future of Food in the United Kingdom

Mathilde Redshaw
Aug 8, 2019 · 6 min read

Current figures related to the UK’s food supply chain are easy for no-deal Brexiteers to misconstrue as representative of a model, self-sufficient agricultural climate. Employing over four million people, the food supply chain generates over £100bn of value to the economy annually, with £18bn in exports each year. The agriculture industry employs 1.5% of the population, and farmers manage 72% of the great British countryside. For all accounts, it appears that a no-deal Brexit would be hard pressed to crumble the towering pillar of British farming.

However, the reality reveals an inherent fragility in the current system, unearthed and placed into the limelight as the Brexit deadline looms closer. The numbers fail to account for the heavy reliance Britain has on both the European workforce and market. Almost a third of the UK’s food supply chain workers come from outside of the country, and while £18 billion worth of food was exported, a whopping £38.5 billion of food and drink was imported last year. The current trajectory sees a growing reliance on Europe; while 30 years ago, the UK produced 80% of their own food, the figure is currently only at 60%.

It is little wonder, then, that there is a growing, nation-wide concern for the future of food post-Brexit. Pre-existing links with the rest of the EU, which have served to boost the industry’s profitability in the past, now make it vulnerable.

Britain are already witnessing a glimpse into the economic changes that will affect English shoppers this November. Since the Brexit vote, Nescafe Original has risen by 14%, Marmite has increased by 12.5%, and Walkers and Weetabix are set to follow a similar trend. But how will the United Kingdom’s food supply system alter were a no-deal Brexit to take place this autumn?

The Shopping Experience

Supermarkets post-brexit will change only marginally for the consumer, according to BBC Radio 4’s Beyond Today podcast. After all, if we cast our minds back to the 2001 foot and mouth disease outbreak, where more than six million sheep, cattle and pigs had been slaughtered, supermarkets didn’t come to a grinding halt. Were a no-deal Brexit to occur, Britains could instead expect to see an increase in prices; a report by the food and agribusiness bank, Rabobank, found that the cost of food and drink items typically imported from the EU countries into the UK, including ingredients such as olive oil and tomatoes, could rise by 8%. Similarly, such as we experience frequently with online shopping, replacements if certain items are unavailable, will become the modus operandi.

Import Searches, Delivery Drives, and Supermarket Slots

Currently, trucks bringing food in from the UK are able to move through import searches swiftly as a result of understood regulations across the European Union. Were a no-Brexit deal to happen, the severed ties with the EU would result in more rigorous, and time-consuming, checks on imports. The knock-on impact this would have on supermarkets would be colossal; the current food system in Britain works on a ‘just in time’ basis, with the country maintaining a five to ten day allotment of groceries at any given time. Food trucks are given specific delivery times, to ensure that produce is replaced ‘just in time’. Were increased import searches to occur, this could massively disrupt the delicate ecosystem of supermarket delivery.

America as an Alternative Food Source

As Britain cuts ties with the European Union, there will still be a need to import food, with America becoming the logical western frontrunner. However, there is a rising opposition to investing in America’s farming industry, as a result of the ‘un-ethical’ practices currently banned under EU Law. Cattle fed with growth hormones, chickens washed with chlorine, beef washed with lactic acid, genetically modified crops and the practice of feeding waste meat back to animals. There has also been rumours that British farmers, producers and suppliers would be forced to lower their standards in order to compete with the American imports.

Whilst this all conveys a dark future for meat within the United Kingdom, David Coker, Finance and Governance lecturer at Westminster Business School has tried to alleviate these fears by offering a new perspective: “UK importation of food produced in the US can actually raise American food standards while lowering British food costs, increasing our food safety. In other words, we don’t need to lower our existing food standards to trade with the US.”

Britain’s Farmers Coming Last

British farmers will, undoubtedly, face the greatest cost of a no-deal Brexit. According to DWF, a legal firm vested in providing insight into the future of farming, tariffs of 47% could be applied to the exports of British milk, 40% per cent for British cheese and 59% for British beef. This might force the UK manufacturers to turn to domestic suppliers for their raw materials: while this might benefit the economy, the higher costs are likely to put an even greater financial strain on the manufacturing businesses. October, the month of the Brexit deadline, is a particularly strenuous time for British farmers, and the following months are when reliance on Europe is most prevalent.

But is the strain on British farmers solely as a result of Brexit? In a survey, 77% of British said support British famers, and 60% said they they try and buy British meat. However, this same survey saw less than half of the public willing to pay more for British products, or actively check where their food is sourced. There is, then, a shared blame on the strain currently affecting British farmers. (Read more on the future of farming here.)

The future of food appears somewhat foreboding, but measures within Britain are already being implemented pre-emptively, tackling the problem before it becomes unmanageable. There is a movement by corporations vowing to support local food sectors; Morrison’s have been forthcoming about their commitment to UK suppliers, and already source 60% of its supplies from within the UK, as well as having pledged to recruit a further 200 British suppliers. Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s have not yet revealed their commitment. There is no doubt that the industry will be watching Tesco’s move closely, after the scandal that saw them use fictitious farms on their packaging to mislead customers into thinking they were buying from local, or family-run businesses. These commitments to British farms are undoubtedly a fantastic small-step for no-deal Brexit Britains, but are still a giant leap away from securing the UK’s food production system.

We appear to be in the middle of a catch 22: Brexit will see food prices rise and potentially lower standards, but as the FMCG and Food sectors rely heavily on foreign labour, we won’t have the work force to support an intense home-grown model.

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Mathilde Redshaw

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Chatting to the biggest and baddest FoodTech start-ups in the game…what’s not to love?

Forward Fooding

The world's first collaborative platform for the food and beverage industry

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