The European Parliament’s information centre in the UK in London held a panel debate on Brexit and food policy on Friday 18th May. Stakeholders representing The British National Farmers Union (NFU), consumer rights organisation Which?, the Food & Drink Federation, and Member of the European Parliament Julie Girling discussed what Brexit might mean for the food sector. Panellists expressed their concerns over the upkeep of food standards and how frictionless trade can be achieved should regulatory divergence occur after Britain leaves the EU. Panellists therefore suggested that staying in the customs union was most likely the best scenario to protect the supply chain and guarantee the best food standards for consumers in the UK.
Leaving the EU will have significant impact on the British food sector, as a majority of the regulation currently governing the industry originates from Brussels. And whilst the Government has yet to decide what a future trading relationship with the continent will look like, Brexit may also offer opportunities to revamp UK food and farming policy to transform the sector.
As outlined in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) White Paper ‘Health and harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit’, Secretary of State Michael Gove favours an integrated post-Brexit policy approach, uniting aspects of food, agriculture and health under one umbrella.
But some critics have warned that the White Paper does not go far enough. Panellists highlighted that whilst ‘health’ is on the cover of the paper, very little substantial policy proposals can be found inside. Most of the White Paper’s policy is directed towards animal health, rather than public health.
The farming sector will face numerous challenges post-Brexit. At present, a large part of UK farmers’ income derives from the basic payment subsidies made under the European Union’s common agricultural policy (CAP). The financial changes that come with the loss of CAP funding will have a significant impact on British farmers. Furthermore, a labour shortage after Brexit is expected, as it is deemed unlikely that British workers will make up for the bulk of European migrant labour when the free movement of people comes to an end.
Whilst some pro-Brexit voices believe that shoppers will happily support local produce, it could be difficult for British farming to compete on price if cheaper imports reach the market in the context of trade deals with countries outside the EU.
As the negotiations progress, consumers need to understand that Brexit might lead to a trade-off between food quality and standards and price. Consumer rights advocacy group ‘Which?’ has therefore developed a consumer charter for Brexit, asking the government to check deals against standards, consumer rights, choice and price. To guarantee safe food in Britain, it is also crucial that a robust system of enforcement to tackle fraudulent and contaminated products is in place, that works across borders.
A further cause for concern remains the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. As there are currently no border checks between the two, businesses producing food on the island do not consider it as two different countries logistically. This means that a food item may travel across the border at multiple stages along the supply chain – from sourcing, preparing, packaging and then selling the final product. As yet, no solution to the Irish border question has been presented that does not involve some form of customs union to avoid serious disruption of the supply chain.
With the exit date nearing, stakeholders were united in their view that the Government needs to urgently put into place concrete plans for future trade arrangements and legislation to ensure UK consumers can continue to enjoy safe, high-quality food at affordable prices.