In Part I we looked at the changing face of food production in the UK, lamenting in particular the amount of food we waste. In Part II we will put domestic food security and food wastage aside, to ascertain what will be the impact of Brexit on the food we eat? Will we start paying more? How will it affect our food choices?
A discussion on the impact of Brexit on our food inevitably requires a discussion of farming in the UK and the extent to which we rely on the EU, not just for the food itself but also subsidies and farming support. It is projected that the biggest impact on farming is likely to be the loss of EU agriculture subsidies, which will inevitably result in price increases. The average UK farmer’s income in 2014 was £22,000, with 55% of that income coming from the EU subsidies. In addition, we rely on 50,000 seasonal workers for soft fruit picking alone, the vast majority of which come from the EU, where cheap farm labourers can be easily sourced due to freedom of movement. The loss of seasonal EU workers may result in less fruit and vegetables grown – which are labour intensive – in favour of more cereal, which can be harvested by machine. This means that producers are likely to move to where the cheaper labour is. This could be disastrous for local producers of fruit and vegetables, particularly for premium, organic produce which guarantees the preservation and protection of the environment. In recent years, there has been a rise in consumer demand for more British-grown produce, who value the availability of local produce over imported due to trace ability and guaranteed standards.
Ironically, many of the most rural and agricultural areas of the UK voted to leave; places such as Boston in Lincolnshire had a 75% vote in favour of leaving. Perhaps one reason was that Brexit campaigners promised to match the support of the EU to farmers. Yet, no details were or have been set out, so exactly how farming will manage post-Brexit is yet to be known and what affect it will have on food prices. Indeed, Brexiteers have been surprisingly silent on the future of British food since the referendum. In addition, as part of the EU we were subjected to farming and food safety standards that were applied centrally by the EU. On leaving, there will no longer be a ban on neonicotinoids, a pesticide used in rapeseed, sunflower and barley production that has been tragically linked to declining bee populations. These crops are not a part of an ancestral based diet, however it does have an impact on us. Bee population has fallen steadily 10–15% over the past two years and, considering a third of crops are pollinated by bees, further declines could lead to higher food costs and potential shortages. Coupled with higher climate temperatures in recent years – which leads to increased numbers of generations of pests per year, allowing time for resistance to pesticides and improved survival rates – our food security is looking less than stellar.
In the wider world, there’s the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) to consider. This is a series of trade negotiations that have been carried out between the EU and US; some argue that the negotiations have been carried out in secret to avoid public scrutiny. This short video explains the basics of TTIP. The trade agreement covers a wide range of sectors, including environmental regulations, food safety laws and healthcare. Among some of the demands from the US meat industry have been to accept the use of antibiotics, chlorine, bleaching and growth-promoting hormones. While European Paleo enthusiasts have benefited from the generally higher standards of the meat industry this side of the Atlantic, TTIP threatens to undermine this. It wouldn’t necessarily have been as simple as choosing British meat – one of the agreements laid out is for US companies to be able to sue if food labeling discriminates against them, so it would be harder to distinguish British meat.
Brexit is likely to delay TTIP negotiations as attention around the EU shifts towards negotiating an appropriate EU–UK relationship. However, the UK was very pro-TTIP so there’s a likelihood that the UK will negotiate separately with the US for a similar (or worse) deal, but the UK’s smaller trading size means it has less negotiating power with the US as it had as part of the EU.
In sum, the future of food and farming in the UK is uncertain and cloudy. It’s clear that we do not currently produce enough food for our own needs – and nor do we necessarily wish to. It’s clear that, in line with most industrialised countries, we waste an enormous, unforgivable amount of food. And it’s also clear that our farms rely on EU subsidies to function. Presumably, someone will sort out our farming situation by the time we leave the EU in two years time. But whether that means our food will become more expensive, flown in from further away, and with lower welfare standards, remains to be seen.