Brexit: Will Britain be food secure?

Adam Hardie

Adam Hardie

Business Development Partner and Head of Food & Drink

11 September 2018

The debate about a possible no-deal Brexit has highlighted a key concern for the food and drink industry: will the UK be food-secure after it leaves the EU? In the first of two blog posts that discuss the potential impact of Brexit on Scotland’s food and drink industry, Johnston Carmichael’s head of food and drink Adam Hardie looks at how much food we import.

Britain’s food security is a complex topic and I’ve chosen to focus here on part of the story: how much food we import, and can Britain grow more for domestic consumption?

The UK produced 60% of its own food in 2017 and, for a variety of reasons, self-sufficiency has been in slow decline since the 1980s. The main products the country imports are fresh fruit and vegetables and currently 79% of all our food and drink imports come from the EU.

The delicately balanced just-in-time logistics and delivery system that currently forms the backbone of trade with the EU ensures that tomatoes loaded onto lorries in Spain on a Monday will have been delivered to UK stores by Thursday and still have a five-day shelf life, as the British Retail Consortium illustrates in its public letter, delivered to Theresa May and the EU’s negotiating team in July 2018.

Without this efficient system in place, the Spanish tomatoes in this example could still be waiting at the ports on Thursday, slowing the system down, which could see them rotting before they are delivered. System delays could ultimately result in reduced choice, quality and higher prices for British consumers, the consortium warns.

Alternatively, Britain could opt to increase its food imports from countries outside the EU – however, industry leaders have warned this could result in an influx of lower quality, lower cost and chemically treated food, which could ultimately harm the competitiveness of the domestic food industry.

Some believe that a potential solution is to produce more home-grown food for local consumption. To pursue self-sufficiency would be expensive and complex, says Policy Exchange – not least because of consumer habits. Consumers have come to expect goods that can’t be grown here, such as tea, coffee, bananas and spices, and others that can only be grown seasonally in the UK, like strawberries and courgettes, to be available on supermarket shelves all year-round.

However, NFU Scotland believes that Brexit provides an opportunity to create a fairer policy environment for Scotland’s farmers and argues there is potential to increase domestic food production which would provide jobs, add value to GDP and deliver quality, affordable food to the British consumer.

An increase in research and development spending may provide one of the keys to boosting British food production.

One of Johnston Carmichael’s clients, Intelligent Growth Solutions, has recently opened Scotland’s first vertical farm – a method of production that uses advanced technology to produce food in a less resource intensive manner and has the potential to provide a solution for Britain’s reliance on food imports.

The company is using its patented technology to make vertical farming more commercially viable. Vertical farming has benefits for the environment, offering huge reductions in water wastage and eliminating the need for pesticides. It also means that food can be grown locally and on demand, much closer to the consumer.

Deal or no deal Brexit, the UK’s food and farming industry remains part of a global economy. Brexit has highlighted the complexity of the global trading patterns that see bananas, tea and courgettes on supermarket shelves year-round. Reducing Britain’s reliance on food imports will mean a change in consumer habits, a policy framework that supports the farming industry and further research into new methods of production.

For more information or to discuss how Brexit will impact your food and drink business, please get in touch with me, Adam Hardie or another member of our food and drink team.