The post-Brexit UK food system: heaven or hell?

Tim Benton

Farmland in Molsheim, Germany. Will UK access to European produce be affected by Brexit? Photo by Karsten Würth via Unsplash.

Food is not simply ‘fuel’. It is clearly important for health and wellbeing and it plays an important role for families and society at large, both socially and culturally. Our food system also underpins significant economic activity. In the UK it is the largest manufacturing sector, larger than the combined size of aerospace and automotive sectors. Lack of access to food — through availability or price — is one of the quickest ways of undermining law and order. Ensuring food security is therefore a key element of ensuring national security.

Based on the value of agricultural products leaving the farm, UK farmers supplied just over half (52%) of our food in 2015. This ‘self-sufficiency ratio’ varies depending on the type of food: we typically eat home grown eggs, meat and dairy products (over 80% of which come from the UK), and this is also true of home grown cereals (62%), but only 23% of our fruit and vegetables come from the UK.

As is widely-accepted, the UK is a net importer of food. In 2015 we imported £42.5 billion of food and exported £20.1 billion. This imbalance is starker with respect to fruit and vegetables, where our exports are $608m and our imports are $9.5bn. The food we import comes from a very wide range of countries, but just 24 countries supply 90% of the value of food we buy. The largest of these suppliers are all members of the EU, including the Netherlands (5.9% of all our food), Spain (5.1%), France (3.3%), the Irish Republic (3.2%) and Germany (2.6%). In total, the EU supplies about a third of our food, including 65% of fruit and vegetables. Our access to food, its price and our choices in the shops therefore depend on an interplay between food produced in the UK, in Europe and the rest of the world.

Data in this section is from a new Chatham House database:

Brexit will reconfigure our food system

Our food future depends on four key areas, which interact. All four raise a range of questions to which the government currently has given us few answers.

  1. UK trade policy. Where do we buy food from, and sell it to? What standards of production will we accept? What are the ‘tax’ rates we will have to pay at borders (the tariffs)? How much friction will there be? Will food need to spend time in ports, undergoing physical inspections? At the moment, so much food comes from within the single market and customs unions, where decades of integration have led to very slick processes and high trust.
  2. UK agricultural policy. As we leave the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and ‘take back control’, how will public money support farming and the services farmland provides to society? Will there be a bonfire of red-tape and deregulation of environmental protection in the name of greater productivity? Or will farmers be supported in providing the wider cultural, social and environmental goods, at the expense of productivity and food prices? How much agricultural policy will be devolved: could we see radically different approaches (e.g. to genetic modification techniques) in England compared to Scotland? How will we treat livestock? Will we maintain high-welfare farming, or reduce welfare so we can compete better in global markets? Where will agricultural labour come from if we reduce the attraction to, or ability of access for, foreign workers?
  3. Food standards policy. Do we have the regulatory capacity to take over from the EU and their food standards body the European Food Safety Authority? Will we reduce our food standards that govern authenticity and safety? Whilst EU and US food safety regulations have similar aims, the EU is more precautionary, taking an end-to-end view (rather than assessing only the final product), and goes beyond narrow cost — benefit financial assessments to include cultural, traditional, ethical, social and environmental issues. Will the UK continue this precautionary approach
  4. The UK’s economic performance. If as a result of Brexit the sterling — euro exchange rate falls below parity and we languish in economic decline, food poverty and malnutrition will inevitably increase as nutritious foods become luxury items.

Is there a coherent vision for the future?

With a year and a half of the Article 50 negotiating window left, we are perhaps at ‘peak uncertainty’. It is unclear how Brexit will impact on our food prices, food availability and the wider food system in general. During August 2017, the UK government started to articulate its aims:

The Government will continue to be a proud champion of global free trade and a strong supporter of the rules-based global trading system. … The UK will maintain high levels of standards (including for food, animal welfare and environment) and protect public services (like the NHS). Furthermore, the government wishes to make trade work for everyone and reduce inequality, as well as making trade more ‘transparent’, at least in terms of policy development. Finally, through boosting trade with the developing world, the government can see an alignment between trade and aid.

With respect to the EU, the Government’s vision is to be outside the customs union and the single market, while gaining a new trade deal which achieves trade as ‘frictionless’ as possible with the EU.

There are many possible scenarios for the outcomes of the negotiation. Inevitably there are significant tensions to be resolved if our end-game is to put us in a better place. For example, ‘making trade work for everyone’ suggests reducing food prices by increasing our access to a globally competitive market. This move is likely to pressure our food standards and the ability to manage our environmental and welfare standards within the UK rural economy. Chlorine-washed chicken is safe but reflects lower standards during production, which make it both cheaper and necessary to clean the meat more thoroughly. If we ‘race to the bottom’ for cheap food, where will food come from, and at what social and environmental costs? Will people continue to trust food in the way we have taken for granted? If our economy declines then food prices are likely to rise, as they may do anyway with new tariffs and border controls. How will people fare? Without greater social support, food price rises always affect the poorest in an unequal society.

There are opportunities and threats in the post-Brexit future of food. The trouble is that in the immediate situation one currently has to look quite hard to see the opportunities, whereas the threats seem to be proliferating.

Tim Benton is Professor of Population Ecology at the University of Leeds and Distinguished Visiting Fellow in the Energy, Environment and Resources Department at Chatham House.

His recent review article in International Affairs is titled ‘The many faces of food security’. It was published in the November 2016 issue.

Read the review article here.