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Food and farming experts fear ‘race to the bottom’ from Brexit

January 11, 2016 6:35 PM
By Alan Bullion

Food security could climb up the UK political agenda over coming months. Many of those currently likely to oppose continuing EU membership and vote accordingly are also from a generation that can recall post-war rationing and so might change their minds if the full implications of Brexit became more overt.

Delegates at a lively City Food Symposium in December overwhelmingly opted for the UK remaining in the EU to shore up its existing food security in a globalised world where it is heavily import dependent.

Professor Tim Lang of City University succinctly said: "Food and agriculture are central elements in the EU structure, yet they have barely been raised in the Brexit debate so far. Big food companies are nervous about supply chains being destabilised, while farmers and growers are worried about how their exports may be affected."

"However, UK food production has been quietly declining for years and the gap between imports and exports has been widening - it is currently estimated to be around £21 billion in deficit. It is therefore vital that, with our health, jobs, food businesses and policy all firmly linked with the EU, we fully understand how leaving it could affect our country, and what the future might be afterwards," he emphasized.

Furthermore, the fact that food security was not being talked about in the Brexit debate was a manifest political failure, Professor Lang observed.

Presentations mainly centred around the likely complexity of reconfiguring existing trade relationships post-Brexit, the loss of migrant labour, lowering standards to food safety and animal welfare, and the inevitable diminution of influence in any future CAP reform negotiations post 2020, while like Norway still contributing significantly to its budget for ease of market access.

Trade rules

Professor Alan Swinbank of Reading University said that any free trade area negotiated with the EU was unlikely to be a simple deal. Internal market rules and geographical indications would still have to be respected.

Kate Trollope, editor of EU Food Policy, said that as a third country, EU approval would be required of manufacturing and processing plants in the UK. Border inspections could lead to time delays and there would also be import fees, a point also made by Jenny Morris of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, who said the UK "would still have to meet all EU food standards in the event of Brexit."

Job losses

Peter Backman, Managing Director of Horizons FS, said that what was distinctive about UK food service industries and catering was that they largely relied on migrant labour.

Ian Wright, Director-General of the Food and Drink Federation, said any impact on existing access to imports would have a detrimental effect on business. "We would cut ourselves off from the talent pool in the EU when the industry had a skills gap of 100,000 workers", he added. Martin Haworth, acting director-general of the NFU, said that agriculture had 34,513 full-time employees from outside the UK.

Budgetary payments

David Baldock, Director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy, said it would be difficult to envisage the Treasury requiring anything other than significant cuts in payments to agriculture post- Brexit. "The exit scenario was not one for the UK to dictate, it had to be negotiated," he said.

In response to a question on the proposed EU-US transatlantic trade partnership, Baldock said that as the current UK Conservative government supports TTIP, in order to help boost trade and jobs. "It would therefore be ironic if the UK wasn't part of it," he mused.

Reduced influence

Former civil servant Andrew Jarvis, Executive Director of ICF International, warned the audience: "If you are not at the table, you are not on the menu." He said the UK would be much less able to influence the rules of a market that supplies most of its food imports post-Brexit. It was also unlikely that food would become safer in such a scenario.

Professor Erik Millstone from Sussex University also commented that UK research and development on food and agriculture would be heavily affected by Brexit, as much of this was dependent on wider collaborative EU networks and funding.

Lower standards

There was broad consensus that Brexit would be highly retrograde for UK food and farming communities. Geoff Rayner, a fellow from the Centre for Food Policy said that "the CAP keeps marginal farms and settlements alive."

Most speakers also concluded that a centre-right UK government would have little appetite for extra spending and increased regulations in the arenas of food safety and animal health, given budgetary cuts, the emphasis on economic austerity, and recent policy pronouncements where the Conservatives were resisting more 'gold-plating' of existing EU legislation.

Dr Alan Bullion is principal analyst at Informa Agra and a former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate for Sevenoaks and Swanley in 2015 and 2010