Brexit has been said to constitute a clear and present danger to UK food security – but what does food security mean in this context and to what extent do any opportunities offset the threats? Ben Cooper reports.
It is little wonder remarks by UK Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling to the BBC last weekend prompted an angry response from the country’s farming sector.
Grayling answered a question about the impact on food prices of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit scenario by suggesting UK farmers would grow more and the country would buy more food from elsewhere in the world.
It is fair to say the Brexit debate has seen more than its fair share of blithe or simplistic evaluations and, for farmers’ groups, Grayling’s observation represents another example.
Laurence Olins, chair of British Summer Fruits, a trade body representing growers of soft and stone fruits, told The Guardian newspaper: “To hear Grayling come out with this tripe beggars belief.”
Glyn Roberts, president of the Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW), said Grayling seemed “unaware” of the economic modelling commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which he said outlines a “far more complex picture for the UK’s many agricultural sectors”, and suggests “in some ‘harder’ Brexit scenarios UK food production would collapse”.
Opinion is divided on the risks Brexit represents to the UK food system and the extent to which they are offset by opportunities. There is, however, overwhelming consensus the questions Brexit raises for UK food production are complex and nuanced – and unlikely to lend themselves to easy solutions and pithy political summations.
This was certainly the picture that emerged at a Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum (WFNF) seminar held in London last month looking at the issue of UK food security and the priorities for supporting domestic food production and driving innovation.
Setting the scene, Professor Charles Godfray, Hope Professor and director of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food at Oxford University, questioned what the term food security might actually refer to in the current context.
Prof. Godfray downplayed what he called the “existential narrative” whereby the UK might face a situation comparable with the outbreak of the Second World War. “I would argue that the existential food security narrative is really not relevant for today,” he said. Rather, he sees UK food security more broadly, pertaining to the UK food system’s fitness for purpose in the long term and in the face of global challenges, such as a growing global population, competition for land and water and climate change.
There is general agreement about what constitute the prime issues Brexit creates for the UK food system. These include: the impact on food prices; the availability of food currently imported from the EU, particularly ‘just in time’ products; UK agriculture’s capacity to retain its hugely important markets in the EU while exploring new opportunities elsewhere; the future for farming subsidies currently enshrined in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); and the future for regulation currently dictated by EU legislation.
However, it is in framing the long-term vision that the opportunities of Brexit, such as they may be, are arguably to be found. Those who enthusiastically support and welcome Brexit and those who most fear its impacts share a belief in the necessity of a long-term plan for UK agriculture.
Trepidation about the impacts of Brexit was in evidence on the platform and from the floor at the WFNF seminar but the discussion at times also reflected the opportunities.
In common with others, Prof. Godfray identified the overarching opportunity represented by the UK being able to create its own agriculture programme. “One the great opportunities I see that we have is the possibility for far greater granularity in our rural policies,” he said. “It surely makes no sense to have a single, one-size-fits-all policy that currently has to work from the Peloponnese to Finland, to the west of Ireland. So, we have the opportunities to do something far more granular that can benefit both the environment and food production and the industry.”
On the other hand, an overarching threat to UK food security can be identified simply by looking at the headline numbers of the UK’s food balance of trade, as articulated by Sian Edmunds, a partner at UK law firm Burges Salmon.
Edmunds pointed out that in 2016, UK food and drink exports exceeded GBP20bn, with the EU representing GBP12.1bn. While over 60% of the UK’s food and drink exports go to the EU, only 52% of the UK’s food by value is produced in the UK. “It’s clear that the UK is far from self-sufficient when it comes to food,” Edmunds said, “and it’s also clear to me that the EU plays a very important part, at the moment, in terms of where we get our food from.”
On a practical level, Edmunds said while “there may well be opportunities to trade with other countries, and to increase the levels of trade with other countries”, food companies will have to remain on top of EU food regulation.
“For food businesses, understanding the EU regulatory regime around food and drink, is going to be increasingly important. At the moment, our regimes on food safety, food labelling, and so on, are intertwined with the EU but, once we separate, there’s going to be an increasing level of divergence, I would suggest. So, for businesses who are dealing with imports and exports from the EU, they’re going to need to understand both the UK regulatory regime, and get to grips with the EU one, as it starts to differ, to some degree, from our own.”
As had been discussed at a previous WFNF seminar on food labelling post-Brexit, divergence from the common regulatory ground the UK occupies with EU countries will carry its own risks to trade.
Edmunds’ presentation reflected the need to balance the undoubted importance of a long-term vision with preparing for the immediate uncertain future.
“At the moment, the UK government is merrily producing policy papers about how it sees trade going forward. The problem with that is that the EU is currently refusing to negotiate on these kinds of post-Brexit issues, while we’re still working out the deal on the divorce settlement between us and the EU. So, for the moment, when we’re talking to our clients, we’re really saying, prepare for the worst-case scenario, assume that you are going to be facing increases on the prices of your imports and factor that into your costings, in the short term at least. So, prepare for the worst, and hope for the best, I think, is really the advice for the moment.”
Looking further ahead, however, Edmunds also suggested there were grounds for qualified optimism. “The UK has broadly taken a very positive, sensible approach to issues of food quality, and security, and integrity. They take it seriously, as do consumers. This is where I think we’ve got some real opportunities with Brexit, to take steps to really think about and reshape the food and drink industry in the UK. We’re already known for our high standards of welfare and quality and I think there’s an opportunity to think more widely about encouraging a focus on sustainability, integrity, and so on, of British products.”
In a similar vein, Helen Munday, chief scientific officer of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents food and soft drink manufacturers operating in the UK, made an important observation about EU food regulation and the status quo it represents.
“In terms of the food safety and regulatory side of things, over 40 years in Europe has brought us to where we are today and we mustn’t forget that we were part of that. We didn’t sit on the sidelines watching someone else do this to us. We were part of the negotiations, we were part of bringing this into our statute books. And there will be many that will say that we did that in good faith and we did that for all the right reasons, and that we shouldn’t be prepared to let that go or indeed want to let that go. The notion that the regulatory framework is not fit for purpose is not the correct one. It is fit for purpose, and it protects both consumers, and our businesses, and the supply chain as a whole, and the environment, in a way that if we were to remove regulation in a ‘willy-nilly’ fashion you might say, would be very unfortunate.”
What is worrying, however, is that as crucial as a gradual transition to the post-Brexit food environment may be, once the Article 50 process ends and that transition begins, the UK will no longer have a say in the future evolution of the EU food and farming policy on which its producers will still in many instances be hugely dependent.
Another challenge of concern to the UK’s National Farmers’ Union (NFU) is that the country is simply not accustomed to framing its food and farming policies having done so through the EU for so long.
Speaking in response to Chris Grayling’s remarks at the weekend, NFU deputy president Minette Batters said: “This is not about ploughing the verges to grow more food. It’s about the absence of any food policy. We haven’t had a food policy for 43 years.”
As Munday made clear, the UK was heavily involved in creating the current EU framework so suggesting it has been in some way contracting this out for decades is misleading. However, given Grayling’s rather simplistic analysis at the weekend, it is hardly surprising some stakeholders are questioning the UK government’s grasp of the agricultural brief.
The discussions at the WFNF seminar underlined there are opportunities and potentially positive outcomes for the UK food sector from Brexit. The devil will be in the detail, which will be as abundant as any bumper harvest. Attention from the outset to the details is crucial, as Grayling rather amply demonstrated at the weekend.
The benefits of Brexit for the UK system are perhaps harder to discern and believe in than the immediate threats but it is vital they are recognised and seized.
How do you see Brexit affecting your business? Give us your view on that and many of the other hot issues facing the sector in our 2018 Confidence Survey.