Food, the UK and the EU: Brexit or Bremain? – Food Policy Briefings

Food, the UK and the EU: Brexit or Bremain? – Food Policy Briefings

Food, the UK and the EU: Brexit or Bremain?

by Tim Lang and Victoria Schoen

This briefing paper explores the food terrain exposed by the wider “Brexit versus Bremain” Referendum question to be decided by the voting UK public on June 23. It is written to raise issues; to invite academics and civil society working on food matters to consider how their work fits this momentous issue; and to aid informed decisions. The paper follows from debates and concerns expressed at the 6th City Food Symposium on UK food and Brexit held on December 14, 2015.

This paper was a starting point for further activities and events on the EU referendum and food issues:
-On 25 April 2016, politicians and food experts met in the House of Parliament to discuss the implications of this year’s EU referendum, in a debate jointly organised by The Food Foundation, Food Ethics Council and Food Research Collaboration.
-On 12 May 2016, a citizens’jury heard evidence on Brexit from leading food experts, in an event jointly organised by People’s Knowledge at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, Coventry University and the Food Research Collaboration
-On 17 May 2016, Professor Tim Lang held a talk based on the paper at a seminar organised by the Leverhulme Centre for Integrative Research on Agriculture and Health (LCIRAH)
-On 20 July 2016, the FRC hosted a roundtable on mapping a plan for post-Brexit food policy. The meeting was attended by 57 academics and civil society representatives

You can contribute to the discussion by posting comments on this page. Please note that comments will be held for moderation.

Image by Flickr user tristam sparks, used under Creative Commons License.

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  1. Stephen Tye says:

    In my opinion the authors conflates food security, environmental issues and healthy diet to make their case.

    The main premise of the argument is that the UK needs the EU for for food security but the paper states “The FAO food security indicators (based on national figures) show the UK has a more than ample ‘average dietary energy supply adequacy’ (the indicator). This rose from 132% in 1994-95 to 137% in 2001-03 and has been there ever since. The authors then ask if the UK Government can therefore relax about Brexit, confident that we have too much food? “Perhaps not” – and to support that opinion goes on to basically say we are growing the wrong type of unhealthy food. This appears to be an attempt at deflection from the main fact.

    The analysis presented in this Briefing Paper and my response is as follows:

    1. The UK is heavily dependent on other EU member states for food. UK food production is below 60% of consumption and particularly reliant on imports for fruit and many vegetables. Supporters of Brexit have not once addressed the UK’s dependency on EU producers and suppliers.

    Response – according to the paper itself, this is because the economics are not right “we could easily grow the apples we import”.

    2. The UK suffers a huge food trade gap of £21bn. Not only is the UK reliant on the rest of Europe for food but this imbalance is a drain on the national balance of payments.

    Response – this is a case for Brexit, surely? We import 27% (£39.3bn) and export 14% (£19bn). If import prices rise and tariffs are put on UK export production, it will get sold here, will it not? We will increase production of foodstuffs currently imported.

    3. The post-Brexit food world will be characterised by volatility, disruption and uncertainty. Food import costs will rise if the price of sterling falls. UK exposure to world commodity prices and competition with large trade trade blocs would rise.

    Response – this is supposition. Economic analysis (mostly guesswork of course) points to a short drop in sterling followed by a sharp recovery

    4. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) are significant control mechanisms in food and both need further reform. CAP has paid large sums to food and farm corporations and the CFP has produced waste and mismatch fishing. The CAP has pushed up land values while the CFP has put many fisherfolk out of work. But many failings have been addressed and there is a case for further improvement rather than abandonment.

    Response – CAP reform will only happen if all 28 Member States agree to it – now we have a large number of poor members, that isn’t going to happen. Irrespective of CAP reform we will NEVER get back our fishing grounds whilst a member of the EU.

    5. The initial focus of the Brexit debate has been farming rather than food, yet the UK food system employs more than six times more people outside farming. It is food that matters as well as farming.

    Response – irrelevant point to Brexit

    6. The EU food system needs urgent reform and a change of direction. If current change is too slow and vested interests are too powerful, Brexit merely adds new complications, risks and uncertainties.

    Response – quite the opposite. Brexit will allow our agriculture to be OUR agriculture with the certainty of rules made by our politicians for the benefit of our country.

    7. The key questions facing the food system include sustainability, demographic change, changes in diet and supply chains and the shift to more healthy foods. The UK and the EU food systems, whether the UK stays in or leaves, need to move rapidly in a more sustainable direction.

    Response – irrelevant point to Brexit

    8. The UK, EU and global food systems face immense challenges and Brexit is a diversion. With over 4 decades of involvement in the EU the Brexit will generate additional food system stress.

    Response – Brexit will generate new opportunities outside of the complex unhelpful and costly CAP. The past is the past, only the future counts.

    9. The case made for Brexit operates on false assumptions. Those in favour of Brexit assume that markets and contracts, not relationships and mutual obligations, are the best way to resolve current problems. This is a false perspective. EU-wide and international collaboration is needed to improve the terms of trade.

    Response – that’s an unsupported opinion widely refuted by proponents of free trade (AKA everyone else) and by anyone who understands contract law and recognises trade is between businesses not countries.

    10. Those favouring Brexit say that the EU is cumbersome and weakens political sovereignty. The case for Bremain is that the UK can put its huge negotiating weight behind promoting progressive change.

    Response – it is clear the EU will not change. It manages by crisis, with every crisis an excuse for transferring more power to the centre. The EU border force is next on the agenda replacing national border controls.

    11. The food case for Brexit has largely been uncharted bar some thought by UKIP on farming. Politicians need to be pressed on what they would do, following Brexit. The food case for Bremain is that it retains existing moves to engage with the sustainability challenge with other EU Member States. Much could be also done by the UK Government on its own, such as reducing diet-related ill-health, rebuilding horticulture, and beginning to cut the diet-related carbon footprint.

    Response – irrelevant point to Brexit, see FAO point made earlier

    12. Brexit would mean that a vast and complicated range of contracts, trade deals and systems of governance which underpin UK food would have to be renegotiated. One possibility would be to leave the existing rules in place and then modify them slowly; but if so, why leave, when the EU is constantly a process of slow change in the first place?

    Response – I suggest some consideration of the concept of government by people elected to govern. Renegotiation will take time, but this is not an argument for staying ‘in the club’

    13. More attention is needed on how to manage the transition, should the public vote for Brexit; the consequences of disruption are potentially considerable

    Response – agreed. Both the EU and the UK government need to plan for Brexit. They deny doing so of course, but you will find the plan in place days after the votes have been counted.

    • TIM LANG says:

      Dear Mr Tye,

      thanks for this. You misunderstood the point of our Briefing: to highlight the importance of the choice on June 23 of 43 years of negotiations and transition of the food system, just when all expert opinion judges that the food system is in a tricky position (climate change, land use, biodiversity loss, and other ecosystems threats, together with heightened geopolitical tensions, and deeply expensive public health externalities. Our point is that food deserves to be a major point of discussion in theBrexit vs Bremain debate. I was sad to read your dismissal of anything you obviously didn’t like as ‘not relevant to Brexit’. With respect, I am not sure you ‘get’ the complexity or the fragility of the UK food system.

      The case for Brexit is, as you undoubtedly know, simply a political issue. Alas, a long simmering argument within the Tory Party is looking like it will raise the stakes for the UK food system, just when it ought to be concentrating on becoming more sustainable – fast. Whether the people vote to bremain or to brexit, that transition is the urgent task for the food system. Politicians just don’t get it, yet. Nor, seemingly, do you.

      On a happier note of agreement, we too gather that deep in the bowels of Defra, plans are being prepared for Brexit. Liz Truss said no in January, but (perhaps due to Mr Eustice being a Brexiter), one is being worked on. Having also perused the forthcoming 25 year Food Strategy, we are not holding our breath about the official position. It’s all Brand Britain, rather than Sustainable Food Britain, which the scientific data point to. We want the British public – whatever their views – to be well fed from sustainable sources.

      We note your supposition that sterling will bounce back. But bounce in which direction? For how long? Volatility is a poor context for food planning.

      We are delighted in your confidence that all contractual and trade agreements will be sorted so smoothly. This is a bit of a risky supposition, however! We can however note with more confidence the existence of food tariffs that a newly EU-free UK food exporters would have to pay, while negotiating many trade deals all the while! You ignore a point we raise in our paper: if this is done, who’s to do it? Ministers on their own? Defra and BIS? who? expensive bought-in consultants? how much will this cost the taxpayer?

      I, for one, am amused that you do not seem troubled about the conflation of food into farming, when actually it is food which will bring people’s ire onto politicians. The lessons of history are clear: it is a foolish politician who assumes people won’t be troubled by food disruptions. And almost everyone – from the FDF outwards – is deeply troubled by that prospect. But maybe your lone voice will be right. I certainly hope so!

      On the issue of democracy, I laughed out loud when I read your comment. I was delighted you think this so important. Democracy is a great thing, we agree. But what do you mean by democracy? The problem is that the Brexit position seems to deny that being in a club is or can be democracy. Why? Leaving, slamming the door and then saying ‘let us back in to trade (and pdq)’ is neither good club practice nor a sign of mature democratic impulse. Sitting down, negotiating, banging the table, winning friends, arguing different options, isn’t that what democracy is also about?

      Again, thanks.

      TIM LANG

  2. Stephen Tye says:

    Dear Mr Lang

    Thank you for taking the time to answer my comments.

    In my opinion you have expanded the Brexit question to encompass all manner of issues that are relevant to the production of food, but not relevant to remaining in the CAP. Hence my comments that much of what you write is irrelevant to being part of the CAP, not as you say because I don’t like the point being made. I’m happy to acknowledge your points are relevant to food production.

    The CAP is a very expensive club, into which some £4.6bn is paid every year, in return for which the UK gets £2.9bn plus a system so mind boggling in its complexity that the UK agricultural industry is constantly paying fines for infringements and taking time out from the important business of food production to ensure all the boxes are ticked. There is a much simpler way of providing support to the stewards of our countryside, and outside of the CAP a far bigger pot from which to provide that support.

    As one of your concerns is food security, how can you equate that with giving away a major part of the UK food production – our fishing grounds. The mismanagement of the fishing grounds under the management of the EU resulted in the collapse of that staple of the British dinner plate, the cod, and is the cause of massive waste as fish caught is returned dead to the seas as it cannot be landed due to it being ‘out of quota’. Such madness, yet you defend it.

    I note with some amusement your points regarding contract law, and Sterling exchange rates. With respect, can I suggest you confine your comments to those areas (food) where you can offer an educated opinion, and leave other matters to those who understand the drivers behind exchange rates, understand the effect of exchange rate changes, can calculate the effect of changes in tariffs on imports and exports, and can offer learned opinions on contract law. Food exporters do not negotiate trade deals, they negotiate business to business contracts!

    Finally, I am greatly disappointed that you think democracy is a laughing matter. others think it is worth dying for.

    Kind regards
    Stephen Tye

  3. Theresa says:

    I would be interested to hear ARC2020’s and Testbiotech’s comments on this Briefing.
    Since December 2015 there have been more developments as the Government, FSA and possibly even the Nuffield Council on Bioethics continues its deregulation and Agri-tech propaganda agenda…I am generalising and exaggerating* ?……(there have been several consultations, some current and some finished).
    *HOWEVER, Academic, media and political opinion is split (contrary to what Government and some scientists may tell you), some are on the fence, some opinions are very polarised and many are blissfully unaware.
    So many many issues to consider and to grasp, so thank you for this Briefing.
    Speak up now and at least before the 29th April (because the Government wants to engage with you by the 29 April), especially if you have something to say about Agroecology, The Alternative Trade Mandate or Regulation ( !
    Maybe you have something to raise about propaganda and debate? Well now is the time to mention it:
    Are you precautionary or innovative? Maybe you are both? Maybe now is the time to mention it.
    Further reading on scientific non consensus and general:

  4. Andy says:

    Hi Tim,

    Are food prices going to rise as a direct result of the reduction in EU subsidies to the agricultural industry by leaving the EU, rather than any volatility in sterling or tariff changes?

  5. Judith Flynn says:

    Does not our ability to grow and harvest food depend on plentiful seasonal migrant labour?

  6. Jane says:

    I think the industry is very curious about what leaving the EU would mean for food hygiene.

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