The UK’s food system is intimately entwined with that of rest of the European Community. Bi-lateral, tariff-free trade, the free movement of labour, EU support for small producers (many of whom are our members or supporters), the maintenance of vital food safety standards, and the protection of rare and traditional foods, these are just some of the areas of positive pan-European co-operation and collaboration.
Whilst any exit from the European Union would come with a measure of unwelcome disruption, the level of disruption threatened by a no-deal Brexit promises to be on an unprecedented scale. Its impact will affect some of the most UK’s most vulnerable food producers and local communities.
If we have to trade on WTO terms, this will mean significant tariffs on many food products, over 35% on dairy, and significantly higher on items such as fresh lamb. This will have a devasting effect on upland areas – the value of breeding ewes has already declined by 50% due to the uncertainty. Likewise, the importation of food – and we import nearly 50% of all the food we eat, 30% from Europe – will again be subject to significant tariffs. This will lead to significant increases in food poverty, in a nation where four million children live in poverty, often with not enough to eat.
The issue of Northern Ireland and its boundary is significant in food terms, too. Each year 680,000 tonnes of food move between NI and the UK. With the nature of the boundary of the customs union in dispute, this would potentially cause significant disruption of the flow of many key agricultural goods, within the United Kingdom itself, even if not subject to tariffs. If that border is placed at the boundary of NI and Ireland, then it will have an unthinkable impact on the food and agriculture of the area, aside from the wider political costs.
Lack of labour (some estimates put seasonal farm labour at over 80% from non-UK EU Nationals) is already causing UK farmers to reduce their outputs. The changes to the subsidy regime, announced to replace the EU Farm Payments, give no certainty for long term planning. This is at a point when farm input costs have risen significantly, due to the weakened pound, following the Brexit vote. This toxic combination is leading to an exodus in investment at a time when our food and agricultural system needs it most, with the effects of climate change an additional challenge.
As the Slow Food Nations of the UK, we are united in our condemnation of these outcomes and call on the negotiating parties to take the concerns of all those within the UK food system, and all those who depend on it, into account.