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Food supply after Brexit

Will UK food producers be priced out of European markets after Brexit? Professor David Barling of the University of Hertfordshire considers the likely impact on the UK’s food supply chain.

More than forty years of UK membership of the European Union has led to ever closer and deeper market harmonisation and regulatory integration of the UK’s food supply, with close to 60% of our food imports coming from the EU, notably in the fruit and vegetable sectors.

Europe is a key market for our food exports, particularly beef, cereals and sheep meat, with 96% of the latter EU bound. Post Brexit, tariffs to enter the European market will raise considerably the price of these UK exports. Will UK producers be priced out of and so lose these markets? Scenarios developed by the UK’s Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) indicate that only the top 25% of higher performing farms, will be able to remain profitable. Much rests on the terms of exit and what is negotiated in terms of a future trading relationship with the EU.

The extent to which the UK is able to provide food from its own producers is measured in terms of the traded value of food through the Food Production to Supply Ratio calculated as the farm-gate value of raw food production (including for export) divided by the value of raw food for human consumption. It provides a broad indicator of the ability of UK agriculture to meet consumer demand .

In 2015, this ratio was 61% for all food and 76% for indigenous type foods. To increase this ratio will need support from the UK Government, not just in compensatory payments, but in terms of a clearer and more detailed strategy for the UK’s food supply and its consumption.

The sourcing of our food supply is complex, in part due to the increased amount of processed and manufactured foods that are assemblages of different food ingredients, and are an increasing part of contemporary UK diets.

Mass produced meats, such as chicken and pork, rely on imported feed commodities and there is no guarantee going forward that the UK can import the ingredients, such as the animal feed, from overseas in the amounts that are needed. China has replaced Europe as the main importer of South American soybean as it strives to meet growing domestic demand for protein.

This international market competition will increasingly impact on a range of key industrial farming inputs that we import, from phosphorus based fertilisers to the immigrant labour needed to collect food harvests and undertake its first stage processing. There is no guarantee that we can source our farming inputs, feed or food needs from international suppliers at a relatively low cost going forward.

Certainly, large food manufacturers are considering these risks and how to substitute key ingredients, such as oils, in their products according to different trading circumstances and availabilities.

The modern food economy as a whole is marked by low wages at both production (farm workers and temporary harvest workers) and consumption ends (food processing, retail and food service). Manufacturing, retail and food service companies are seeking to take a greater share of value from the food supply chain, often at the expense of suppliers and their workers.

This is an industrial sector in which companies are often engaged in competition, yet they are mutually reliant upon one another. The need for rules to underpin fairer trading relations along supply chains has begun to be addressed by the UK in relation to the large supermarket retailers and their domestic suppliers with the Grocery Code Adjudicator, but this needs to be extended along the whole supply chain to include manufacturers and food service trading relationships with their suppliers.

These uncertainties and associated vulnerabilities point to the need for a clearer vision of our policies towards our food supply after Brexit.

What should be our food supply ratio? How should we measure it? Economic value is currently the basis, but this does not address the population’s nutritional needs, and the access to food that is able to provide an adequate and healthy diet, to paraphrase the FAO’s definition of food security. Starting with these criteria would provide a far better measurement of our food security.

Such metrics also need to be placed within a broader vision of a UK food policy that embraces both healthy production and consumption. Michael Gove, as Secretary of State for Defra, has identified the importance of food consumption in a coherent food policy.

Now we have the opportunity for a more thoughtful and detailed food policy that encourages food production and supply that meets the nutritional needs for a healthy and more secure UK population.


Professor David Barling

Director of the Centre for Agriculture, Food and Environmental Management (CAFEM), University of Hertfordshire



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