Brexit clouds over Britain’s food security

At the stroke of midnight on July 3, 1954, members of the London Housewives’ Association held a ceremony in central London to mark the end of food rationing in Britain that had commenced 14 years before, after the start of the Second World War. Rationing covered goods from meat and sweets to tea and eggs (though not fish and chips, which was considered the national dish and in need of protection to keep up morale) and involved a system under which individuals had their own ration books, that determined what they were able to purchase. It still remains a key part of the nation’s collective memory. Britain’s (relative) economic prosperity since has meant that the country has never faced the prospect of food shortages — not at least until the debate over contingency planning for Brexit.

Last week, newly appointed Brexit Minister Dominic Raab was forced to insist that the government wasn’t stockpiling food provisions. However, he admitted that the government would be looking at the issue of Britain’s food supplies “in the round” and make sure there were “adequate food supplies”.

His comments sparked alarm bells that were further exacerbated by Prime Minister Theresa May’s insistence later in the day that rather than alarm, the government’s preparations ought to offer people “reassurance and comfort”. Her message provided cartoonists with a field day, while others took to social media to post images from the days of rationing and Cold War bunkers, in grim humour.

At a time when Britain’s home production is steadily declining, and its food system has failed to improve its resilience, a hard Brexit can have severe impact on the security of food supplies

Making things worse for the government, the British Retail Consortium warned that the stockpiling of food was not a “practical response” to a no-deal Brexit and that the industry had not been approached by the government to begin planning. “Retailers do not have the facilities to house stockpiled goods and in the case of fresh produce, it is simply not possible to do so,” they said, adding this simply reinforced the need for a backstop to ensure frictionless trade when Britain leaves the EU on March 29 next year.

The question of the security of Britain’s food supplies has been raised since the early days of Brexit: just under half of Britain’s food comes from within the U.K., with around a third from the EU and the rest from beyond.

Severe implications

“The implications of Brexit for food are potentially enormous,” warned a group of academics in a report, “A Food Brexit: time to get real”, published last year. The implications would be severe whether or not a hard or a soft Brexit was pursued, they warned. Britain’s home production had been steadily declining, and its food system had failed to improve its resilience.

However, the impact of Brexit stretches beyond food received from outside Britain’s borders. Over the past few months, concern has been growing about Britain’s own domestic fresh fruit and vegetable sector amid a shortage of migrant labour to work in fields, as fewer EU workers, who have normally carried out much of this work, came to work in the U.K. amid uncertainty over their future rights. The labour-intensive industry has long relied on labour, particularly from countries such as Poland, Bulgaria and Romania.

Earlier in the summer, industry body British Summer Fruits warned that even iconic sectors such as British strawberries, which have seen strong growth in the past two decades, could be crushed if policy headed towards a hard Brexit. “This is as extreme as it gets. If we do not have the pickers, we do not have a soft fruit industry,” warned its chairman.

Vidya Ram works for The Hindu and is based in London.

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