As Michel Barnier spends this week in London in a last-ditch attempt to breathe life back into Brexit talks which Boris Johnson last week declared were ‘over’, the implications of the negotiations, whether they are successful or not, are moving swiftly from conceptual to real, and nowhere more so than in the food and farming sector.
As we demonstrated last week, even the UK government’s favoured ‘Canada’ solution would still see tariffs imposed on certain foodstuffs, and that assumes a ‘best case’ scenario emerging from the talks. It’s clear that whatever happens, what we find on our supermarket shelves, how it gets there, and the consequences for our domestic food production industry are all set for big change.
More than half of the UK’s food is imported, and much of it comes from the EU (85 per cent of our vegetable imports, for example). The huge lorry parks being built in Kent demonstrate how the government believes that international traffic is going to be affected from 1st January, and it’s inconceivable that this won’t have an impact on food supply.
We are used to food being available all year round, but Brexit could result in us all having to accept seasonal shortages which can’t be compensated for by easy and cheap imports.
Let’s not forget, too, that the UK will have to replace all of those third-country trade deals which it currently enjoys via EU membership; that’s not impossible, but it will take time, and certainly won’t be complete by the end of the transition period.
On the retail front, supermarkets have fragile Just-In-Time supply chains; delays in transportation, increases in documentation and costly duties are all going to increase food bills, even if we can work out a way of getting fresh produce onto the shelves without it spoiling while parked up in Calais or Kent. There is simply not enough warehouse space to stockpile food, and anyway that is not possible with perishable goods.
Even in the best case scenario, with a comprehensive free trade deal, there will be added costs, time-consuming extra logistics hurdles and tariffs on some foodstuffs. If we are not prepared to adopt EU food standards, then we will face extra barriers to exporting (it’s inconceivable that Europe will accept British-made foodstuffs which include ingredients imported from outside the trading bloc, for example).
Added to all this, the end of free movement threatens to remove a considerable proportion of the UK’s food and farming workforce, which, in the short-term at least, will add costs, and could well reduce capacity drastically.
The food sector will need to work together to create a more robust supply chain, but this will take time; in the meantime all of our shopping baskets will potentially be less varied and more expensive from January.