The State of Our Plates Post-Brexit

Speculating about the future of food after we leave the European Union

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The consensus among experts is that Brexit will impact food prices. Except that the extent and intricacies of this dilemma can, for now, only be speculated upon, uncertain as we still are about whether, Noel Edmunds-style, it will be deal or no deal. Some sectors will be affected more than others, in accordance with how much of certain foodstuffs we import from the EU. Allow me to serve up the latest findings and predictions on this rather unsavoury of issues, so you can decide for yourself whether to abandon studying to work instead on stockpiling Biscoff.

Like a lot of Brexit-related discussion, it would be easy to postpone worrying about food supplies until further down the line. It is simpler to assume it ‘won’t affect me’, but studies indicate to the contrary: many popular supermarket trolley items may take a hit. An LSE study predicts that “speciality cheese [will be] particularly prone to shortages.” Think halloumi, camembert, mozzarella. The same goes for popular cuts of meat, such as leg. And vegans, don’t think you get off lightly. Britishgrown tomatoes make up only 20% of the tomatoes we consume, roughly. Plenty of other fruit and vegetables paint a similar picture.

The degree to which we see price increases for these products will depend on what happens in the negotiations of trade tariffs and the conditions for border checks on EU imports, as well as exchange rates. Currently, the UK, isn’t subject to tariffs on imports, nor inspection of cargo imported from an EU member state. However, this will change post-Brexit, with marked chaos set to ensue if we leave without a deal. The UK Trade Policy Observatory based at the University of Sussex calculated that an average tariff of 44.6% on dairy could translate to a price rise of 8.1%. The fact that the pound has already fallen in value is suspected to have “contributed to a small rise in food prices” a study by the London School of Economics says. These two factors plus the effect of border checks – “one day of delay for a lorry will easily cost a business 600 to 1,000 euros” (£500- £850), according to a KPMG report – means feeding ourselves will, almost inevitably, cost more.

Certain retailers began stockpiling prior to the original exit date of 29th March, with WH Smith among them, focusing on chocolate. However, now that the date has been pushed back to 31st October, CEO Stephen Clarke says “we’ll have to unwind [the stockpiling] and build it again”, due to expiry dates on the products. Understandably, there is no merit in beginning to stockpile perishable food items now, with Brexit planned for Halloween. Stockpiling in the lead up to the March date has, therefore, backfired in some cases. Tesco chief executive Dave Lewis says the supermarket has now started focusing on items with a long shelf-life, in a move to be “proactive” should Brexit hit our food supply chain hard. But stockpiling gets even more complicated once you consider the annual pressure on warehousing at Christmas time. Co-op CEO Steve Murrells believes that “we’ll have to be smart about the way we substitute, using canned grocery items to possibly replace some fresh items,” so with space for tins of sweetcorn tight, a solution will have to be found.

Our domestic-grown and produced foodstuffs are, also, far from immune from the negative impacts of Brexit. British agriculture currently relies heavily on EU subsidies that allow farmers to make a living from their trade. Without these subsidies, the likes of dairy and vegetable production could become unsustainable, so even if man can currently live by British milk alone, this may not be the case post-Brexit.

In summary, you needn’t start stockpiling now. Tesco has thought ahead, so even if brie is off the menu, tinned peaches will save you from starvation. Be prepared to pay a premium for that antipasti tray, though. Or just up sticks and move to Italy.

But on a serious note, here’s hoping International Trade Secretary Liam Fox can secure some reasonable tariff deals and, more crucially, we aren’t left in a no-deal limbo.

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