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No-deal Brexit is still a disastrous prospect for British food and farming

One year on from the last time we faced no-deal Brexit, and a global pandemic later, the government appears to have learned little about managing a national food crisis.

Photo credit: Sustain

Photo credit: Sustain

Happy anniversary. This time last year, we were preparing (for the second time in 2019) for the probable impact of the UK leaving the European Union without a trade deal in place. It appears that no-deal Brexit is once again on the table. Sustain remains clear: A no-deal Brexit would be disastrous for British food and farming, especially as it comes so hot on the heels of coronavirus. Let’s remind ourselves why.

Our food supply will be severely disrupted

A no-deal Brexit could interrupt trade routes worth billions of pounds to British food and disrupt our everyday food supply. As we reported a year ago, when the October 2019 EU Exit Day was imminent, roughly one third of our food comes from other European countries. Lest we forget, a Government commissioned report last year found that even a mere 80-second delay per shipment to check paperwork at ports could lead to significant gridlock. There were doubts there was enough warehouse capacity to satisfy stockpiling needs. And the October 2019 Exit date (not dissimilar to the forthcoming 31 December 2020 EU Exit date) came at the end of the UK’s growing season, when supplies of domestic fresh produce were starting to run short. Supermarkets warned it would be harder to stockpile extra supplies at the same time as preparing for Christmas. For the supermarkets, little has changed since last year, but for others the situation is much worse because so many foodservice companies, suppliers and smaller food businesses are already on their knees as a result of the Covid pandemic.

British farmers and food businesses will suffer

Secretary of State for farming George Eustice shocked farmers when he said in a Radio 4 interview a couple of weeks ago that it would be a “good deal” if no deal Brexit happened. This followed him having been presented with examples of the tariffs that would be levied on British farm produce, including a 40 per cent tariff on British beef that would cripple exports to the EU. In February last year, in the build-up to the first of 2019’s potential EU Exit dates, George Eustice’s no-deal Brexit emergency plans also included the UK dropping tariffs on food imports, to stabilise food prices, in a plan that - if reprised this time around - would further undermine British farmers and food businesses.

Agri-food contributes £113bn to the nation’s economy and food and farming employs 3.9m people (13% of UK employment). Farming unions have been clear all along that our farmers’ livelihoods will be put at risk if they have to compete with cheap food imports, including those produced to lower standards, which now looks more likely with each passing headline and trade negotiation. Those farming unions have long feared a no-deal Brexit, as have leading food manufacturers and workers’ unions. Yet food and farming has been treated as a sidebar to no-deal Brexit contingency planning. Back in 2019, food and farming were to get just £35m from a £1bn government no-deal contingency fund.

Ian Wright, Chief Executive of the Food and Drink Federation – the UK’s main food manufacturing trade association, told Parliament in August 2019 that a no-deal Brexit would also cause “mortal damage” to the food and drink industry. He reported leading food businesses using other epithets such as “disastrous” and “catastrophic”.

There is no reason to believe that a December 2020 EU Exit date will be any less disruptive and damaging than it was predicted to be just a year ago. Yet the Government has still made no indication of how it will address these very significant challenges to a large proportion of both our imported and exported food supply, and the farmers and businesses that rely on them.

Even those businesses who work hard to promote high quality British food exports will be badly affected. The total trade in organics between the UK and the EU is worth nearly £750 million per annum, including finished goods, ingredients used in UK manufacturing and animal/aquaculture feed. Exports of UK organic food and drink to the EU are now worth approximately £225 million. A letter to the UK agriculture and trade secretaries published last week by leading members of the British food, farming and organic industries (including several Sustain alliance members) states unequivocally that if the Government fails to secure regulatory equivalence, it will be illegal for UK producers to sell organic food in Europe or in Northern Ireland, potentially destroying many businesses.

Nobody is accountable for guaranteeing we get the food we need

In autumn 2020, we face post-Covid job losses, recession and millions of households already experiencing household food insecurity, with the prospect of yet more food supply disruption in December 2020 and into spring 2021. This is nothing less than a perfect storm.

Yet in the cold light of a post-lockdown autumn day, let’s remind ourselves that just a year ago, the Government blatantly said it has no duty to secure food supplies in a crisis (no-deal Brexit, natural disaster, pandemic or otherwise). Indeed, the Covid-19 crisis in 2020 amply demonstrated that the Government felt little legal or moral duty to ensure that people do not go hungry – even children. During Covid-19, their initial reaction was to offer only crumbs from the table. It took intensive lobbying by Sustain alliance members and others; public pressure; a near parliamentary revolt; threatened litigation from Sustain and the Good Law Project; and a final winning campaign goal by Premier League footballer Marcus Rashford – simply to persuade the Government to guarantee that over 1.3 million severely disadvantaged children got one good meal a day over this summer.

When no-deal Brexit was last on the cards in autumn 2019, top chefs and food charities said that the health of millions of UK children could be at risk if supplies of food to schools were not protected from a no-deal Brexit. Where is the guarantee in 2020 that school (and hospital and care home) food supplies will be secure? How are those stockpiling and priority distribution plans going? Or will reliable food supplies – as in the early days of lockdown – be afforded only to those with a credit card and a lucky enough streak to secure a supermarket delivery slot?

People on a low income will go hungry (again)

Back in February 2019, The Times newspaper reported on a Cabinet document which suggested the Government was considering creating a ‘hardship fund’ to support those hardest hit by a no-deal Brexit, as well as “using “tax and benefits policy” to offset rises in the cost of living and protection for parts of the country “geographically vulnerable” to food shortages. The Times reported that the plans had been “drawn up at a meeting… of the EU exit and trade (preparedness) committee, which is chaired by [then Prime Minister] Theresa May and attended by almost every Cabinet Minister.”

No such hardship fund ever materialised. When the Covid pandemic hit in March 2020, it was soon understood as both a medical emergency and a food and poverty crisis. On 16 March 2020, prior to lockdown, Sustain and alliance members called on Government to release the hardship fund and ensure adequate financial support for struggling households. Yet even after intensive lobbying by Sustain and many of our alliance members and others, it took until May for Government to provide an inadequate one-off £16m for food aid charities to help address the astronomic rise in household food insecurity due to low income during Covid. It took until early June for Government to allocate a one-off £63 million for local authorities to assist those struggling to afford or access food. And it took until mid-June for the Government to reluctantly U-turn and agree to provide a one-off £120m for free school meals for hungry children over the summer.

In a no-deal Brexit that once again disrupts food supply, will people on a low income and those who have lost jobs need to wait three or four months to know where their next meal is coming from?

During Covid, crisis food policy was invented on the hoof, with announcements of government support in fits and starts, hastily improvised by committed civil servants and NGOs battling to get the real-life impact of household food insecurity understood or even heard at ministerial level. The food industry, local authorities and frontline charities that stepped up to fill the food gap as best they could have been heroic but have had a truly terrible year. Emergency grants and food donations bailed local authorities and food aid charities out for a while. But such piecemeal and temporary support means that they are unlikely to be in a fit state to adequately address yet more food crisis by December 2020. Indeed, Trussell Trust food bank analysis published this week forecasts a 61% rise in need for emergency food parcels across its UK network in October to December 2020.

Food prices are likely to rise

In December 2018, the then Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney told MPs on the Treasury Committee that in the most "extreme" case of a no-deal Brexit, food prices would rise by 10%, but in a less severe scenario the increase would be about 6%. The price rises would come partly from a fall in the value of the pound, partly from any tariffs imposed and partly from increased costs at the border as imports are checked.

There is no food plan and Government remains secretive

Back in autumn 2019, Sustain worked with dozens of national and local organisations, charities and businesses - and even with former Prime Minister Gordon Brown - demanding to hear the government's plans to prevent a no-deal food crisis. The lack of such food contingency planning soon proved to be a terrible and unnecessary stumbling block when millions of families struggled to access adequate food during Covid-19. No proper food plan has ever been forthcoming.

The National Food Strategy Part 1, published in August 2020, provided a welcome prod to government to establish such plans, particularly to secure food for disadvantaged children (though many other people vulnerable to household food insecurity are as yet missing from the table). However, as an initiative independent of government, it lacks fiscal or legislative weight. It still needs to be accepted by ministers, including in the Chancellor’s Autumn Budget in October 2020.

Remember Yellowhammer? In 2019, there were several leaks of official government documents setting out 'reasonable worst case scenarios' for a no-deal Brexit, setting out the likelihood of national food supply disruption, backed by increasingly concerned statements from major mainstream food industry players. Ministers issued unconvincing platitudes about security of supply. Secrecy, non-disclosure agreements and the highly politicised nature of Brexit was then - and remains now - a serious problem when it comes to proper planning to mitigate the effects of a national food crisis.

Covid should have taught us that cross-sector cooperation is the best strategy in the face of a common threat. Coordinated action by so many people and organisations means that honesty and transparency about the food challenges facing us are essential. But these are - like British-grown fresh produce on EU Exit Day at Christmas - in woefully short supply.

Published Monday 14 September 2020

Good Food Trade Campaign: Campaigning for good trade that benefits people and the planet at home and overseas.

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Kath is Chief Executive of Sustain: The alliance for better food and farming.

Kath Dalmeny
Chief Executive

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