Analysis: the great Brexit food security gamble

By David Burrows

In July, three of the UK’s leading food policy experts published research showing how the country could “sleepwalk into a food crisis” following Brexit. Not to talk about or plan openly for the disruption that leaving the European Union will cause is bizarre and irresponsible, they wrote.

“UK food security and sustainability are now at stake,” warned Professor Tim Lang, one of the report’s authors. “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% of our food. Anyone who thinks that this will be simple is ill-informed.”

In the four months since their report (A food Brexit: time to get real), producers, manufacturers, retailers and food security experts have been queuing up to ring similar alarm bells (see Wake up call). Gabriel D’Arcy, chief executive of LacPatrick, one of the UK’s largest dairy producers, is the most recent. “Whitehall is fixated with financial services and they are not bothered about food,” he said this month.

Indeed, the only discernable policy appears to be to “grow more here and buy more from around the world” – the words of transport secretary Chris Grayling when asked on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show in October about what will happen if there’s a hard Brexit and prices shoot up under World Trade Organisation (WTO) tariffs. His suggestion was widely ridiculed.

So, what is the situation regarding UK food security and what are the key threats? Will food be left rotting in fields and at ports, as some have warned? Will the market be flooded by cheap imports as production at home stalls? Or can the country become more self-sufficient, sustainable and profitable after Brexit?

Professor Erik Millstone is from the University of Sussex, co-author of the report mentioned above and the man who came up with the phrase “sleepwalking into a food crisis”. He warns that the direction the government’s food policy is taking represents a serious threat to food security.

“It’s difficult to discern what the UK government’s policy is at the moment [for food],” he tells Poultry Business. “There are conflicting views between departments and even between ministers within the same department. [But] retailers want to know if they will still be importing tomatoes from southern Spain, or needing to rely on tomatoes from Worthing. You can’t scale up production in a week – contracts are often done a year in advance.”

The idea that a switch can be flicked and production increases is fanciful; but there’s no reason why the UK can’t become more self-sufficient. According to the British Poultry Council’s website, the poultry meat industry is “the only livestock sector that is capable of quickly scaling-up production to support increased self-sufficiency of the UK”.

However, there are a number of caveats to this, not least how to balance the carcase. “If UK producers are priced out of EU markets (three-quarters of exports are to the EU) then much of the export value would have to be recouped in the UK marketplace through food prices, unless alternative markets can be opened,” the council notes in its website.

International trade secretary Liam Fox is (as The Guardian has put it) hoping to line up a banquet of such trade deals for British exporters to feast on post Brexit. Top of the list should be China, according to the BPC; hardly surprising given it’s a market that values dark meat and fifth quarter products as highly as the UK does breast meat.

Dark meat exports are currently valued at £300m, and for every 10 chickens produced only seven legs are sold. “We need a market for all the other bits that UK consumers don’t want,” explains Ian Marshall, business development manager (f00d) at the Institute for Global Food Security, based out of the University of Belfast. This could also help keep prices down, he adds, citing the Dutch who have been “very clever” in opening premium markets in Asia and elsewhere. “That helps them subsidise the price they can export to the UK for,” he adds.

But can the UK’s inexperienced negotiators strike the deals the prime minister promises, the food industry wants and the public needs?

It’s a moot point. In the past deals have been done by the EU, but come March 2019 the UK will be flying solo on the international trading scene. The desperate need to train and recruit staff is no secret: £2.5m has been aside to train staff at the Department for International Trade, with £1.2m already spent on headhunting.

This month fresh fears were raised about chlorine-washed chicken when the US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross suggested that any regulations would need to change for there to be any chance of a deal between the US and UK. Just days before, when asked during a session with the House of Lords subcommittee on energy and the environment whether the UK market will be open to chlorinated chicken from the US, Defra secretary Michael Gove eventually confirmed that “no”, it would not.

But can the industry (and consumers) trust a government that is failing so miserably to get its chickens in a row on food policy?

In recent weeks concerns have intensified that a “hard Brexit” is a distinct possibility with negotiations struggling to move beyond the opening issues (citizens’ rights, the Northern Irish border and the divorce bill) and on to trade. Without a tariff-free trade deal in place, the average cost of food imported by retailers from the EU would increase by 22% thanks to WTO tariffs, according to the British Retail Consortium. Meat and dairy would be hardest hit.

Farming minister George Eustice has also sought to allay fears. “The food and farming sector will be ok if there is no trade deal with the EU, and we revert to WTO rules on trade with them,” he said recently. To suggest those in the food chain are equally relaxed would be a “gross understatement”, says David Read, chairman at Prestige Purchasing.

Indeed, a (relatively crude) KMPG paper back in February identified food and drink as the sector most exposed in the event of a hard Brexit – workers will be lost just as exports dry up, the two squeezing the sector pincer-like, and forcing some business to ‘pop’. As the BPC said around the same time: “Increases in the cost of production and lack of labour are not great circumstances to drive growth in UK food production.”

Throw in climate change and the UK is facing the “greatest threat” to the integrity of its food supply since the Second World War, according to food security expert professor Chris Elliott. Amidst all the talk of changing tariffs, the changing climate hasn’t got a look in. Last year, the influential Committee on Climate Change warned that “there is no national approach to ensure the resilience of the UK food system”; responding in January the government said it “takes a more optimistic view of the levels of resilience that are achieved through functioning markets and diverse sources of supply”.

This rose-tinted view seems to extend to post-Brexit food security. Peers pushed Gove hard on food prices during their recent Q&A, but didn’t get very far. Tariffs are not the only factor that will have an impact, he said, as he declined to offer any forecasts lest he offend those who already done so. “I wouldn’t want to put my name or my department’s name against any specific prediction,” he said, adding that there is “no magic formula” to explain what will happen post Brexit.

As Poultry Business went to press, the government had just announced that papers showing the economic of impact of Brexit across a number of industries – including food – will take up to three weeks to publish; despite a commons motion demanding their immediate release. The reticence to publish is hardly surprising: these analyses could well be the stuff of nightmares.

However, Gove has continued to try and offer a more romantic view of the food system after March 2019 – of farms run by artificial intelligence and animals living in ‘enlightened’ conditions. The belief in Westminster is that innovation and technology will increase productivity and high animal welfare standards will help drive exports.

The BPC is keen to see what this means in reality. Will there be more support (once the UK is freed from the EU’s common agricultural policy subsidy system) for investments in infrastructure and technology, for example? “Access to food is going to be one of the biggest challenges in the coming year and must be recognised as such,” says BPC public affairs manager Shraddha Kaul. Short supply chains in the sector mean that producers can meet increased demand, she adds, and there’s scope to improve productivity and efficiency if the backing is there.

If. Reports have suggested the government has scrapped a 25-year food and farming plan (Defra didn’t respond to requests for clarification), which leaves the food policy cupboard bare and the food industry scrabbling around in the dark. “This is not about ploughing the verges to grow more food, it’s about the absence of any food policy,” said NFU deputy president Minette Batters recently. “We haven’t had a food policy for 43 years.”

The government would do well to face up to that reality and the impending food crisis – not to mention the opportunity Brexit creates to design a food system producing low impact, highly nutritious and safe food. Instead, ministers seem happy to reach for the snooze button. 

In numbers

76% – self-sufficient across indigenous foods

65% – self-sufficient in poultry (import 35% of poultry meat eaten here)

£2bn – annual imports of poultry meat

£0.5bn – annual exports of poultry meat

75% – of export trade is with EU member states

£300m – dark meat exports

£200m – breeding stock exports

 

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