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Food Brexit dilemmas

Food Brexit dilemmas

Prof Erik Millstone, Professor Emeritus of Science Policy at the University of Sussex, assesses the likely impacts of a hard Brexit on the UK food system.

Brexit-related uncertainties are now massively greater than almost everyone expected in the aftermath of the referendum. No-one knows what the impact of Brexit will be on the UK food system, but there are good reasons for thinking that the harder the Brexit, the more problematic will be the consequences for the UK and the Irish Republic. Food security requires a system that provides a sufficient, sustainable, safe, healthy and affordable supply – a hard Brexit could undermine food security in all five respects.

The UK imports 30% of its food from other EU Member States[1]; 11% more comes from other countries (much via Rotterdam) under trade deals negotiated by the EU[2]. If Brexit leaves the UK outside the Customs Union and the Single Market, those supplies will become harder to obtain and more expensive.

Some Brexiteers, and the Trump administration, want the UK to import far more food from the USA, others favour Africa, others even further afield, but then it would be less safe or more expensive, or both. Senior supermarket executives have warned of empty shelves[3], and many companies have invested in stockpiling. Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has said that to avoid delaying imports he would instruct Port Health Authorities not to inspect food consignments from the EU[4]. But that might result in numerous condemned loads from across continental EU being funnelled into the UK, undermining food safety. Many food companies have been stockpiling key ingredients, but perishable foods cannot be stockpiled, and stockpiling is an additional cost, for which additional income is unlikely to be forthcoming.

Public and environmental health is likely to be undermined by increased international price competition, especially if Brexit is used as an opportunity to reduce ‘regulatory burdens’ on industry and commerce

A No-Deal Brexit would mean trading with the EU, and the rest of the world, under the rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). WTO rules are designed to reward the most price-competitive suppliers, which provides suppliers with a strong incentive to externalise as many ecological and public health costs as possible. Consequently, public and environmental health is likely to be undermined by increased international price competition, especially if Brexit is used as an opportunity to reduce ‘regulatory burdens’ on industry and commerce.

Senior US officials have insisted that the UK must accept any and all exports of US food products if it wants a free trade deal with the USA[5]. As a member of the EU, UK livestock producers have had to implement the policy of reducing the use of antibiotics in livestock. In the EU they can only be used therapeutically, not prophylactically, nor as growth promotors. Between 2009 and 2018 antibiotic sales to US livestock farmers rose by 27%[6], whereas UK farmers reported a 26% reduction[7]. SUSTAIN, the UK’s leading coalition of food and farming NGOs, reported in February 2018 figures indicating that the rate of microbial food poisoning in the USA is about ten times as high as in the UK[8]. US hygiene standards are poor and control technologies (like chlorine washing) are ineffective[9].

In September 2018, the UK’s International Trade Secretary, revealed that post-Brexit he wants to repeal EU food standards using controversial powers, which would bypass Parliamentary scrutiny[10]. Other ministers have contradicted Liam Fox’s plan[11], but that just compounds the uncertainties.

‘Taking back control’ is a good slogan but hard to achieve in a world food economy where supply chains are so interconnected. The claim that, on leaving the EU, the UK can cease to be a ‘rule taker’, and becoming instead a ‘rule-maker’, and trade freely with countries in all parts of the globe, is an illusion. If, as an independent country, the UK sets rules covering food safety and standards that do not meet the requirements of our trading partners, we may be able to import foods from anywhere, if their products conform to our rules. But UK producers will not be able to export to countries with tighter standards than the UK, unless they manufacture products for export that differ from those for domestic sale. If you want to export, your products must conform to the importers’ rules. The suggestion that the UK could substantially increase its exports while adopting a unique set of rules that will not be shared by our trading partners is a fantasy. In practice, the UK must decide which agricultural and food rules it will take: those of the EU, the USA or the WTO.

In summary, the implications of Brexit for the future of food in the UK are hotly contested and profoundly uncertain, but they could well be harmful to the UK and its citizens.

Prof Erik Millstone, Professor Emeritus of Science Policy, University of Sussex



1. Defra (2018) Food Statistics Pocketbook 2017

2. FDF written evidence (2018)


4. I Quinn, The Grocer, Emergency Brexit plans for supplies could last 'months', 30 Nov 2018





9. CJ Highmore et al, ‘Viable-but-Nonculturable Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella enterica Serovar Thompson Induced by Chlorine Stress Remain Infectious’ mBio, March/April 2018 Volume 9 Issue 2, 9:e00540-18.


11. BBC News. 1 March 2019, UK says food standards will not be lowered for US trade deal.

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