Half the UK’s food is imported: 30% comes from the EU, and another 11% comes from non-EU countries under the terms of trade deals negotiated by the EU. Being part of the EU customs union has meant food from the EU can be imported with no tariffs or customs barriers but, as part of leaving the EU, the Government has stated that the UK will be leaving the customs union. At the time of writing, it is not yet certain what trade agreement might be reached between the UK and the EU, either for a transition period or for the longer term. But it is inconceivable that Brexit will have no impact on EU food imports to the UK.
If an agreement cannot be negotiated, Brexit is likely to result in an average tariff on food imports of 22%. While this would not equate to a 22% increase in food prices for consumers, there can be no doubt that prices paid at the checkout would rise. To counteract this the Government could cut tariffs on all food imports, EU and non-EU, but this would pose a serious risk of undermining UK food producers who could not compete on price.
At least as significant as tariffs are the non-tariff barriers that may result from Brexit. The Government remains confident that it can secure an agreement that would allow ‘frictionless’ imports of food from the EU to continue, but it is unclear how that would be possible outside of the customs union. Any such agreement would be likely to require the UK to mirror all EU standards and regulations; a condition the UK Government may find politically difficult to accept. If no agreement is reached, and food imports from the EU are subject to the same customs and border checks as non-EU imports, the UK does not have the staff, IT systems or physical infrastructure to meet that increased demand. Any resulting delays could choke the UK’s ports and threaten the availability of some food products for UK consumers. The Government’s proposed alternative is to allow EU imports through with no, or very few, checks: this raises safety concerns as well as questions over how customs charges would be processed.
As well as securing a deal with the EU that will allow continued tariff-free, frictionless imports of food, the Government must also secure agreements with the non-EU countries from which the UK currently imports food as part of EU trade agreements. 40 such agreements are currently in place, covering 56 countries and accounting for more than 11% of UK food imports. The Government’s belief that most can be simply and easily ‘rolled over’ is not shared by those who have given evidence to previous EU Committee inquiries.
This contrast between Government confidence and industry concerns is striking, and reflects the tone of the evidence to this inquiry more broadly. The Government may not be worried about the potential for Brexit to impact on the price and availability of food, but the representatives of the food and farming industry, importers, port authorities and consumer organisations were vocal in their concerns.
EU food imports cannot easily be replaced by either producing more in the UK or importing more from non-EU countries. UK self-sufficiency has been declining for the past 30 years, and reversing that would require financial incentives, investment in new technology and skills, and continued access to the EU workforce (at least in the short term). It would also take time and, given the restrictions of landscape and climate, there are some foods that could not be grown here. We heard no evidence that non-EU imports could increase significantly; 20% of the UK’s food already comes from outside the EU and there do not seem to be many other likely sources of supply.
A study by the Food Standards Agency found that one in five households are already experiencing, or are on the margins of, food insecurity. Any increase in food prices as a result of Brexit will add to this insecurity. We also heard concerns from witnesses about the impact on nutrition: with 40% of vegetables and 37% of fruit sold in the UK coming from the EU, these types of food may be particularly affected by Brexit. The Government’s stated post-Brexit objectives, both that UK food and farming should be exemplars of high-quality production and that the UK’s trade strategy should seek lower prices for consumers, risk exacerbating existing differences in food consumption. Those who can afford it will be able to buy high-quality local produce. Those who cannot afford that option may well base their diets on cheaper, imported food, that witnesses were concerned could be produced to lower standards to keep costs down.
The Government should develop a comprehensive food security policy for the UK. A long-term view is needed on whether to prioritise food standards or food prices, whether to reverse the UK’s declining self-sufficiency or increase imports. Other factors should include workforce shortages, priorities for investment, and bigger, global issues such as the impact of climate change on food production worldwide. This would be needed regardless of Brexit, but we urge the Government to use the challenges and opportunities that leaving the EU will pose to the UK’s food supply as a spur to develop its strategy as a matter of priority.
1 As measured by the responses to a series of questions about behaviours and experiences associated with difficulty in meeting food needs. For full details, please see Food Standards Agency, The Food and You Survey Wave 4 (2017), p 26: [accessed 20 April 2018]