Blog: Katy AskewUK food exports continue to trail EU peers

Katy Askew | 13 December 2013

The UK Food and Drink Exporters Association yesterday held a conference in London and the message was clear: the UK food sector is improving its export profile, but more work lies ahead.

According to Steve Barnes, director of economic and commercial services at the UK Food and Drink Federation, food exports account for 20% of the country's food production. In the first nine months of 2013, the "disappointing" trends of 2012 were reversed and the country recorded export sales growth of 4%, bringing UK food and drink exports to GBP14bn.

However, despite an increased focus on - and step-up in Government support for - exports the UK's performance significantly trails its European peers. "Every country has reacted in the same way: we have a recession, let's export our way out," Barnes explained.

"The UK exports the least food and drink by value of also the lowest percentage of total production. We are benchmarking below our peers."

For example, Barnes said Germany exports ten times as much food to the BRIC markets as the UK. Only 3% of UK exports are destined for these high growth economies. "We have great opportunities and we are not quite seizing them collectively," Barnes cautioned.

An important question, then, must surely be why? For the most part, the UK faces the same trade barriers and benefits from the same free trade areas as our European cousins. So what is unique about the UK that means we are "failing" to capitalise fully on export opportunities?

When this question is posed to the food industry, a fairly standard answer is to point to a perceived lack of government support. However, since austerity measures have kicked in around Europe those seemingly endless Italian or Spanish stands you see at trade shows are no longer heavily subsidised by their respective governments. At the same time, the UK government has stepped up its support of would-be exporters in the food sector. This year, UK Food Secretary Owen Paterson has attended trade shows in the Middle East, Asia and Europe.

Perhaps, then, the issue of one of culture. The importance of language barriers and cultural differences when establishing trade relationships cannot be overlooked.

Could our island mentality be standing in our way?

Stereotypically, the European Union is often portrayed as a means to open markets for German finished goods and support French agriculture. While this is obviously a gross over-simplification, the idea that the economics of trade underpin the Union seems fairly sound. But the UK has always remained somewhat separate. Has this contributed to the reticence of UK companies to look overseas to drive growth?

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