The ‘Brexit benefits‘
According to the Government’s Food Security Report 2021, in 2020 the UK imported 46 percent of the food we consumed. It claims that having a diverse range of international sources makes food supply more resilient.
UK food and drink exports to Europe have been severely reduced due to Brexit, or P&O ferries, as Government ministers prefer. Shipments from the continent are decreasing due to the additional costs of Brexit bureaucracy.
There was a recent news report of a Staffordshire farmer who had to compost 500 tonnes of organic beetroot because his traditional customers in Europe ‘now find it much easier to avoid all the (Brexit) hassle and look inside Europe for alternative suppliers.’
UK farming is ‘holding this country back’
In a BBC interview in December 2021 Boris Johnson maintained that UK farming models have ‘held this country back and held our economy back’.
Jacob Rees-Mogg is claiming the ability to reduce food standards on imports is a ‘Brexit Benefit’. Having effectively cut us off from our closest trading partners, agreements on tariff free trade with the likes of Australia, New Zealand and American producers can be finalised.
In many instances, their animal products are produced to lower welfare standards and their crops are treated with chemicals banned in the EU and pre-Brexit UK. Do we really want lower food standards and in due course, reliance on food supplies from producers on the other side of the world?
Blueprint for the future of British farming
NFU President Minette Batters has responded with her Blueprint for the Future of British Farming in a speech to conference in February this year. She claimed the issues in the industry “are down to Government policy and their total lack of knowledge of food production and how it works.
“It doesn’t have to be like this. It doesn’t have to be a fight. Current policy is being made in city offices without reference to what is happening, or even possible in the field.”
We could follow partnership models in line with other countries. In Ireland for example, the Government and farmers are working together to a common goal that will create food security for the future.
British supermarkets have their own agenda
With one or two exceptions, the supermarkets appear to have turned away from British regional SME food and drink producers. Three or four years ago our multiple retailers listened to their customers and responded by actively engaging with regional producers, stocking a wide range of locally produced, branded goods.
I was actively involved at the time, helping producers from across East Anglia gain listings with many of the largest retailers. That level of communication and collaboration has all but disappeared as the retailers adjust their ranges to suit customers with reducing budgets.
British supermarkets have recently refused to accept price increases from British free range and organic egg farmers, to help them cover spiralling feed and energy costs. The sector is warning that this could lead to a shortage of eggs.
In a November 2021 poll of 500 farmers across England and Wales by sustainable food alliance Sustain, 86 percent were supplying a supermarket or a large food processor. However, given the choice, only five per cent would be happy to continue that relationship.
Mass produced, own brand supermarket products are increasingly replacing much loved premium brands, whilst imported products are starting to find their way onto the shelves. Product choices will continue to decline to satisfy the need for price control and acceptable retail margins.
So what of the future?
The Government, having rejected the benefits of EU membership and the free movement of high standard, quality produce from the Continent, claim as a Brexit benefit, the import of lower quality, tariff free foods from distant markets.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has thrown up another food-related issue, in that Ukraine produces vast amounts of sunflower oil and wheat. The European market will have to adapt to shortages and rationing. British supermarkets have already started to limit the sale of cooking oil.
Will this encourage renewed Government support for British cereal production? We wait to see.
Covid lockdown saw many East Anglian SME food producers survive by introducing local delivery services and opening online shops to ship nationwide.
UK farmers are increasingly diversifying to improve their margins. Many are turning to on-site processing, adding value to their basic products. Turning milk into cheese, butter, ice cream or yoghurt and selling direct to the regional food service sector or consumer, potentially reduces overall volumes, but greatly enhances their margins and their chances of survival. The same applies to cereal growers and livestock farmers, some of whom have opened farm shops or butcheries based on their own produce.
The result will be a further reduction in UK food production. Those with money and an interest in animal welfare, quality and provenance increasingly buying from the farm gate, factory door and online. Those on limited budgets becoming increasingly reliant on foods produced to lower standards, imported from the other side of the world.