As the reality of Brexit slowly starts to kick in across the UK, and as European politicians begin to hold meetings and English politicians desperately try to fix their own parties, lots of people are asking what a Brexit actually means for them. The nuts and bolts cause and effect sorts of questions.
One of the main topics that’s been placed in the spotlight is now regarding food, and just how much of an impact the Brexit could have on food in Britain.
It's safe to say that Brexit places the UK and its population in an unpredictable position and many forecasters are putting their best guesses forward – no one can understand the consequences for certain, but below we've collected some of the main topics being commented on in regards to food.
Markets are now showing some recovery – the BBC reports that the pound has started to slowly rise against the dollar and the euro, and that the FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 are both showing signs of recovery. However, Britain’s AAA credit rating has been downgraded and the pound dived against the dollar harder than it has since 1985, all of which makes markets uncertain. A continued weak pound has implications across the food sector and would see supermarkets prices increase, as reported in The Independent, as much of the UK's food is supplied by EU–based producers.
The UK relies heavily on the importation of food from the EU. It’s predicted that around 30% and maybe as high as 40% of the food eaten in the UK comes from the EU. The New Yorker reports: “the president of the National Farmers’ Union, Meurig Raymond, has warned of food prices rising from the combination of a falling pound and the UK’s reliance on imported food.”
This is where some of the UK’s food producers could benefit. A weaker pound sees the cost of goods for foreign buyers drop – as Economics Help points out, foreign companies can now buy the same amount of products for less money, thanks purely to the currency difference. In the US this could prove very beneficial – Forbes reports that UK exportation of food and beverages has been rising substantially since 2015 and that 14.5% of these exports are to the US.
The British food supply is underpinned by years of EU–based regulations and laws, many in place to ensure safer food standards. After a Brexit, Britain will have to decide what to do with these regulations: do they adopt them into UK law? Do they wipe them out and start again, rewriting 43 years of complex laws? Will there be some kind of hybrid approach? Much of EU regulation has been put in place to make food safer: think about what happened after Mad Cow Disease – what would happen without this regulation in place?
Arguments on the other side of the fence state that things like EU Fisheries quota rules, which saw fishermen throwing fresh catch back into the sea because they couldn’t bring it to shore, have actually been detrimental to the food ecosystem.
Many publications are reporting that business owners in food production are worried about the way Brexit will affect their workforce. Places with seasonal work, fruit pickers for example, recruit a large majority of their workers from abroad. Figures from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford actually suggest that as much as 38% of the food manufacturing workforce in the UK is made up of foreign labour.
If Brexit was to restrict free flow of work or stop new recruitment from abroad, this would leave a gap to fill, and many, like this Guardian piece, argue that it would increase British wages, as the extra demand for a new workforce would need to be filled, while increasing cost to producers and the cost of food to consumers.
The big question is, will a drop in foreign workforce actually be filled by British workers? This tweet from professor Tim Lang - a food expert in the UK - said it all.
“Food Plan B now needed. Will the people who voted Brexit be prepared to dig for Britain, work in picking fields and factories for low pay?”
Subsidies are the elephant in the room. While many argue that they are one of the biggest wastes of EU money and constrain farmers in too much regulation, there’s no denying how much of the British farming industry relies on EU granted subsidies – the EU’s agriculture subsidies total around three billion pounds for British farmers. The big unknown at the moment is what support farmers would be entitled to post–Brexit?
The EU provides protects specific foods in three distinct ways under the EU's Protected Foods Name Scheme. This scheme works to protect iconic and usually regional products that still use traditional methods of production. Think of Parmesan cheese or Champagne.
British producers are now worried that this type of legislation could be overlooked during the Brexit bureaucracy that’s sure to follow. Could it mean the end to Cumberland sausage or Stilton cheese?