20.07.2017 |

UK faces insecure, unsafe and expensive food supplies after Brexit, academics warn

Brexit could cause chaos for UK food supplies (Photo: CC0)

The UK is sleepwalking into a post-Brexit future of insecure, unsafe and expensive food supplies, leading academics have warned. According to a report published on Monday by food policy specialists from three British universities, the UK is unprepared for the most complex ever change to its food system. “Supplies could be reduced, prices could become increasingly volatile, environmental sustainability could be further diminished, safety could be imperilled, inequalities could be amplified, and public trust be undermined,” they write in the 88-page report with the title “A Food Brexit: Time to get real”. The professors warn that the Brexit process is happening at a particularly vulnerable time for the UK food system - a time when it has become excessively dependent upon imports while its productive base is declining. “UK food security and sustainability are now at stake,” said Professor Tim Lang from City University of London, one of the authors. “A food system which has an estimated three to five days of stocks cannot just walk away from the EU, which provides us with 31 per cent of our food. Anyone who thinks that this will be simple is ill-informed.”

The authors criticise that the government is lacking a vision for UK food or agriculture and has failed to warn consumers of the implications even of a ‘soft’ Brexit. “It’s like the rabbit caught in the headlights – with no goals, no leadership, and eviscerated key ministries,” they write. “No-one has warned the public that a Food Brexit carries real risks of disruption to sources, prices and quality,” Professor Lang said. “There is solid evidence about vulnerabilities ranging from diet-related ill-health to ecosystems stress. Food is the biggest slice of EU-related regulations and laws, yet so far the Government has provided next to no details on agriculture and fisheries, and there has been total silence on the rest of the food chain where most employment, value adding and consumer choice are made,” he added. “With the Brexit deadline in 20 months, this is a serious policy failure on an unprecedented scale.”

The report also warns that Brexit could pose serious threats to food safety, standards and quality as the UK is reliant on a vast array of pan-European institutions and scientific infrastructure which keep British food fit to eat. “In the EU, UK consumers and public health have benefited from EU-wide safety standards, without which there will be a risk of the UK having less safe and nutritious products,” said Professor Erik Millstone from the University of Sussex. Another issue addressed in the report is the UK’s dependence on migrant labour. “UK food manufacturing is our largest manufacturing sector but one third of its workforce is migrant. UK horticulture has massive dependency on migrants to pick ‘British’ food UK consumers say they want,” the authors write. They predict that technology will not replace the vast army of migrant labour who work in food service. “The UK’s food system already faces unprecedented challenges on environment and jobs – we see real dangers that these are already being dislocated by Brexit uncertainties,” warns Professor Terry Marsden from Cardiff University.

The report also makes detailed recommendations for each of the key issues explored. The professors call on Government and MPs to publish policy commitment to a low-impact, health-oriented UK food system and to establish a new National Commission on Food and Agriculture to provide oversight and review. They stress that any new food framework needs to commit to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris climate agreement. “We believe the evidence points to the need for a Food Brexit for Sustainable Development. Brexit must not fudge this opportunity for the UK to accelerate into a food system which delivers sustainable diets from sustainable food systems,” they concluded. “This great Food Transition should improve food security at home, and in countries from which we import food, by lightening the UK’s ‘foodprint’ on the planet, improving public health, reducing the economic burdens from poor diet, enhancing food employment, and more.” (ab)

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