Tim Lang, Erik Millstone & Terry Marsden
The implications of Brexit for food are potentially enormous. This verdict applies, whether there is a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit. The UK food system, consumer tastes and prices have been thoroughly Europeanised. This will be impossible to cut out or back by March 2019 without enormous consequences. The UK food system faces real challenges on food security.
This paper summarises 16 major issues on which Food Brexit has the potential to threaten UK food resilience and security:
- Vision. What goals would any new post-EU food system have? Will these address the looming sustainability challenge which is a mix of ecosystems, social and public health challenges?
- New food legislation will be needed. Will this be a transfer of EU legislation followed by the Secretary of State sitting with his or her ‘delete’ button?
- Food security. The UK’s home production has been steadily declining. The UK food system ought to be improving its resilience. It isn’t. It’s like the rabbit caught in the headlights – with no goals, no leadership, and eviscerated key ministries.
- Sourcing. The UK derives much of the food vital for health – fruit and veg – from within the EU. The pound sterling has been dropping. Food price inflation is rising.
- Public support. Clarifying and then aligning what British consumers say they want with what is negotiated by March 2019.
- Food quality and standards. Brexit campaigners ignored the inbuilt reliance the UK has on pan-European institutions, to which we contribute. A vast array of institutions and scientific infrastructure keeps UK food fit to eat. Brexit campaigners did not inform consumers/voters that US agribusiness is salivating at the prospect of selling foods which have weaker standards, nor that foods derived on world markets use standards which are weaker than the EU’s and those of the USA.
- Replacing the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy. The CAP and CFP are core and old EU policies. They have been much attacked in the UK, often for good reason. Leaving CAP and the CFP exposes a vast policy vacuum. The new Secretary of State has made a statement about even tearing up the CFP predecessor the London Fisheries Convention from 1964! The Coalition and subsequent Conservative Governments provided no policy vision other than a belief that Agri-technology and an export drive will suffice for farming, and that reasserting a 200-mile exclusion will resolve unsustainable fish sourcing. They will not. What’s the point of farming and fishing? How can they mix food production and ecosystems services? These are vital issues for the era of climate change and ecosystem stresses.
- Food labour. The entire UK food system is dependent on migrant labour. UK food manufacturing is our largest manufacturing sector but one third of its workforce is migrant. UK horticulture has massive dependency on migrants to pick ‘British’ food UK consumers say they want. Technology will not replace the vast army of migrant labour who work in food service.
- Subsidies. HM Treasury and Defra have long been ideologically opposed to subsidies for farmers yet CAP/EU subsidies provide about half of UK farm incomes. The Conservative manifesto talked of maintaining subsidies until 2022. Then what? Defra and HM Treasury are committed to cutting ‘Pillar 1’, implying that if there are to be any subsidies, the base line for them would be the existing 20% that goes to Pillar 2. The subsidy question exposes the shameful inequalities within the UK food system. Primary growers get a tiny percentage of what consumers spend on food.
- National and regional food policy. The UK has no food policy. Scotland and Wales have been developing their own visions; England is the problem. Seen collectively, the UK will have a dwindling mishmash of policies, once EU frameworks are removed. The UK has fairly consistently failed to contribute positively in EU debates, playing to the corporate gallery at home, arguing for cutting subsidies, rather than working hard inside for progressive policies. The world’s food system faces immense challenges. The drift in and after a Brexit is the worst policy situation imaginable. We have options. This paper explores some options mooted within and beyond government circles: a new imperialism (expecting others to feed us); reinvigorating UK food systems; commitment to sustainability; and more.
- Relationships with neighbours. The wild talk before, during and since the Referendum ignores geography. The EU 27 member states are our neighbours. They are incredulous at the hostile, stupid talk from leading politicians. British negotiators must build bridges. Or does the UK really want hostility? This would be madness for a country which does not feed itself.
- Divided Food Britain. The UK is a food divided country. The health gap between rich and poor is heavily associated with diet and food costs. Recent events underline how important it is to tackle these divisions. Merely promising ever cheaper prices or more food banks is not a reasoned policy response.
- Institutions and infrastructure. The UK enters Brexit negotiations in a weak situation. The Food Standards Agency is a shadow of its former self. Defra has had years of cuts and suffers a serious staff shortage, just when the UK needs many of the best and brightest civil servants to negotiate the most important element of Europeanisation – our food. To leave the EU would sever the UK from many bodies which underpin food – from scientific advisory bodies to regulators, from research programmes to subsidies to regions. What is going to replace these? There is silence from Defra and the Government.
- The negotiations. In 18 months or so, the most complex reconfiguration of the UK food system is to be completed. Analysts now realise that this is at best folly or at worst a recipe for chaos. Never has there been such a large body of thinking within the food system, from outside critics to inside track policy cognoscenti, that the UK ought to take a deep breath, reconsider and pursue a well-thought-out strategy.
- The role of Big Food. The food system is already dominated by huge food companies. Brexit must not be an opportunity for further corporate capture of market power. The good news is that increasing numbers of food companies now recognise the seriousness of impending crises from health, ecosystems and social divisions. The UK public must ensure that what emerges ahead – whether the UK leaves or stays – the food system is more firmly shaped by values of justice and decency, as well as good quality.
The realities of a Food Brexit are awesome. The British public has not been informed about its implications. Many people who voted for Brexit will be hardest hit by a ‘hard’ Brexit – people on low incomes, the elderly, farmers, people in the North of England. This paper urges politicians, civil society and academics who understand the food system to speak up and speak out. Brexit is a political construct. It should not be a recipe for food insecurity.
Terry Marsden just published his new book: Agri-Food and Rural Development – Sustainable Place-Making
The agri-food and rural development world has experienced significant changes in recent years. The evolution towards globalized and highly complex food supply systems has been accompanied by growing competition, reduced state subsidies as well as concerns about quality, output and the environment. At the beginning of the 21st century, the agri-food industry is urgently searching for new solutions.
Exploring these recent developments, Agri-Food and Rural Development highlights the latest research on understanding and promoting sustainable food systems. Featuring a range of international case studies, it investigates different models of rural development for food production, examines the implications for a sustainable future, analyzes future challenges, and suggests new strategies for future agri-food development in a world fast exceeding its resources.
An ambitious new study written by a leading authority in the field, this book offers a vital new perspective on this important debate and is destined to become a landmark text for students, scholars and policy-makers in food studies, agriculture, rural sociology, and geography.