Brexit Food Shortages – Should You Be Worried

Where does our food come from?

The UK grows 61% of the food it eats (National Farming Union, Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at the City University of London, & DEFRA’s Agriculture in the UK paper of July 2017).  This figure has dropped from 80% in the last 30 years.

The food we import comes from the following places:

  • 79% from the EU
  • 11% from countries granted ‘Most Favoured Nation’ status, such as the USA, China, Brazil & Australia
  • 9% from bilateral agreements with countries such as Canada, Norway & Chile
  • 1% from ‘Generalised Scheme of Preference’ such as India, Ukraine & Iran

The UK has a huge deficit in fruit and vegetable production.  The table below shows the deficit we had in 2015. These figures exclude potatoes.

Exports of Fruit & VegetablesImports of Fruit & Vegetables
£5.2 billion£199 million

(Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board)

On the other hand, we produce 80% of the cheese and beef we consume and import 20% from the EU. (British Retail Consortium)

In 2015, the UK imported food and drink to the value of £38.5 billion, but exported only £18 billion.

These figures show that the import/export position of the UK in relation to food and drink is very unbalanced – and not in our favour.

EU Labour in the Food & Drinks Industry in the UK

63% of staff working in meat processing plants in the UK are from the EU (i)

85% of all vets employed to audit UK abattoirs are from the EU (i)

35-40% of staff on UK farms in the egg industry are from the EU (ii)

95% of the workforce, working for members of the British Summer Fruits Association, are from the EU (ii)

(i)NFU’s ‘Vision for the Future of Farming’ Report July 2018
(ii) CBI’s Report ‘Open & controlled: A new approach to immigration after Brexit’ 

As an individual who has never experienced food shortages, other than perhaps as a result of panic buying when snow has been forecast, the alarm bells are beginning to sound.  Will there be Brexit food shortages?  The figures I have given above certainly show the potential, given the discrepancy between our import and export figures and the number of EU citizens employed in the food and drink industry in the UK.

Could the UK become self-sufficient and feed itself?

free range chickens

I grow a few vegetables and fruit in the summer, and I have eggs from my own chickens – but no way am I self-sufficient! Could we as a country become self-sufficient?  

The NFU has urged the nation to increase home-grown food production, but I wasn’t aware of this.  I am aware, however, of Morrison’s commitment to UK suppliers – they currently source 60% of its supplies from within the UK.  I don’t know of the other supermarket’s plans.  There are also many obstacles to the UK becoming self-sufficient – some produce would not be available all year round; we don’t have the land to grow all the crops and keep all the animals we eat; and of course we don’t have the climate to produce all the crops we love, tea, coffee, bananas, to name a few.

The president of the NFU has stated “we will never be self-sufficient in food production in the UK”.  He pointed out that the population in the UK is rising and there is a huge demand for crops that cannot be grown here.  Furthermore, society has grown used to food items being available all year round.  He does, however, state that we could increase self-sufficiency.

Professor Tim Young argues that we could become self-sufficient, but it would depend upon what we eat.  He pointed out that we would have to cut eating meat down to once a week and put more money into primary food production.

There are many arguments for and against becoming more self-sufficient, but what is obvious is that there is no way we could become self-sufficient or even more self-sufficient before our planned Brexit on 29th March this year!

Where will our food come from after Brexit?

So we know that we get approximately 30% of our food from the EU and an additional 11% via deals done by the EU with other countries. Therefore any serious disruption to the trade flow in food would have major consequences. Those most at risk are the 8.4 million people in the UK who are already food insecure and would have little resilience to rising food prices or scarcity.

According to the government’s publication ‘Brexit: food prices and availability’, there was no evidence that non EU imports could increase significantly.  So, perhaps there is a risk of Brexit food shortages.

Will the price of food increase?

food prices

The British Retail consortium has stated that the absence of a trade deal between the UK and the EU will see the price of imported food rise by 22%.  

The government’s publication referred to above confirms this, but does state that this would not equate to a 22% increase in food prices for consumers – but would undoubtedly mean an increase on the prices paid at the checkout.

Fruit and vegetables would be at risk of price increases, given that 40% of vegetables consumed in the UK come from the EU as well as 37% of all fruit.

Animal products could also see prices rocket too, particularly meat from pigs.  55% of pig meat comes from the EU.

Hopefully, there will be a free trade deal made between the UK and the EU before we leave the EU, otherwise the UK will be forced to trade under the ruling of the World Trade Organisation, and as a result food prices are likely to increase.

Unfortunately, even if we do secure a free trade agreement with the EU, Brexit will still impact food prices in the UK according to the inquiry by the House of Lords.

When we leave the EU, it is true that we should be free to negotiate trade deals with other countries.  But – we will lose our bargaining power as we will no longer be part of such a large market, and this could be disastrous with our negotiations. This could result in the UK compromising on the quality of our food imported from other countries.

Will the quality of our food be compromised?

food quality

There is concern about where our food will come from and if the quality of our food will be compromised as a result. To date there has been no promise that current EU food quality regulations will be maintained once we leave the EU.

The NFU has warned that in order to avoid food price rises as the result of a no-deal Brexit, the government could lower import tariffs which would encourage food producers to buy in inferior materials.

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health has produced a report ‘Feeding Britain: Food Security after Brexit’ stressing the importance for ministers to consider food in their Brexit negotiations.  It warns of seven threats to food safety that we could face after a no-deal Brexit: 

Chlorine-washed chicken

US chicken has been banned in the EU since 1997 because it uses chlorinated disinfectants to reduce bacteria on chickens. US processing plants rely on this because their other hygiene standards are so poor.  After Brexit, we will not know whether imported US chicken has been through this process unless it is voluntarily declared or declaration is made legally compulsory.

  • Pesticides

Pesticides are sprayed more frequently and more widely in US agriculture than in the UK and EU.  Moreover, the maximum residue levels of pesticides in the US are often substantially higher than those permitted in the EU.  Importing US produce would therefore involve a marked increase in the amount of pesticide residue that the UK consumers would ingest.

  • Ractopamine

One of the EU laws bans the provision of the drug called ractopamine to pigs, which increases their muscle tissue and reduces fat. A meatier and less fatty carcass is more profitable but less safe and there is extensive evidence indicating the possible negative effects to both pigs and pork-eaters.  In the US, the Food & Drug Administration deems the “benefits” of using ractopamine to outweigh the risks.  This means the additive could make an appearance on the UK market.

  • Chicken Litter

Another practice deemed acceptable by US authorities is to incorporate chicken litter (poultry bedding mixed with chicken faeces) into animal feed, including feed intended for poultry.  The UK’s experience with BSE showed us what can occur when animal wastes are incorporated into animal feeds.  A similar outbreak could easily emerge again and would risk UK public health as a result.

  • Food additives

US food contains a wider range of additives than are permitted in the EU, and at higher levels of usage.

  • Chlorinated water

While chlorine-washed chicken may be banned in the EU, UK and European producers are permitted to disinfect leafy vegetables with chlorinated water.  Recent studies have proved this process to be entirely ineffective in reducing the presence or virulence of bacteria.  This is bad news for food safety after Brexit, as in the US and across the rest of the world, chlorine washes are used not only on vegetables and poultry but also on fish, fruit and non-leafy vegetables.  This might account for why the rate of food poisoning in the US is approximately 10 times higher than in the UK.

  • Food labelling

US food labelling standards provide consumers with far less information than is the case in the EU.  Unfortunately, representatives from the US have told our Government that in any US-UK trade deal, the UK should be obliged to accept food that complies with current US legislation and regulations.  Different ministers have been saying different things and it is far from clear whether the Government would not accept any reduction in UK food safety standards in exchange for a UK-US trade deal.

Should I stockpile food?

food stockpiling

The fear of Brexit food shortages has already prompted some to start stockpiling food.  The new term ‘Brexit Boxes’ has already appeared.  Facebook pages are emerging giving advice on what to stockpile in the event of Brexit food shortages.  Indeed, the government has even appointed a minister for stockpiling food after Brexit.

There is no doubt in my mind that when we leave the EU, particularly if we do not have a deal, we are likely to lose access to a large amount of our current food supplies.  

Even if we do manage to secure a free trade agreement with the EU, according the inquiry by the House of Lords, we are still likely to face an increase in border checks and clogged up ports.  Indeed, the recent fiasco concerning Seaborne and Chris Grayling’s failure to stage a traffic jam, provide us with little confidence that food imports will run smoothly.  Living in Kent, and experiencing first-hand the problems when sections of the M20 are closed under Operation Stack, together with the proposals to use the M26 for the ‘safe management’ of lorries, fill me with dread. Unfortunately I do worry that there will be Brexit food shortages.

What food should I stockpile?

My wife is pleased to learn that chocolate is safe!!! The UK has ample supplies of whisky, chocolate and beer.  According to the Food & Drink Federation, the UK exported more of these three products than anything else in 2016.

We should also be ok for cereal products, as well as anything made from wheat, barley or oats.

As we have a lot of cows we should also have uninterrupted access to milk.

The Verdict has produced the following list:

The pre-Brexit shopping list

  • Pig Meat (Bacon, loins)
  • Vegetables (and seeds)
  • Fruit
  • Sugar
  • Potatoes (if you have the space)
  • A Generator
  • Emergency Fuel Supply
  • A Barbecue
  • An ample supply of wood
  • A Horse (or another suitable form of transport)

I think I will add a few extras to my shopping basket – tinned food, frozen food, sugar and perhaps some pork!

Is is scaremongering?

The uncertainty around Brexit is very worrying.  What’s so frustrating is that as an ordinary citizen of the UK, we have no control over what is happening.  We just have to pray that the politicians know what they are doing and have our best interests at the heart of their negotiations. Unfortunately I am not convinced that this is the case. 

Uncertainty regarding Brexit food shortages could lead to panic buying.  A group coordinating contingency planning in London have warned the government to “get its act together” to prevent panic buying and civil unrest over Brexit.

I don’t think that the possibility of Brexit food shortages is scaremongering. I am concerned about food shortages, price increases and the possible compromises that could be made in food safety.  But – there is nothing I can do other than stockpile a few foods for my family and business.  And perhaps fill my car with fuel! I may instead just limit my exposure to Brexit news for the sake of my mental health and continue cooking and sharing my recipes. 

Please share if you found this post informative.

One Reply to “Brexit Food Shortages – Should You Be Worried”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *