Confused about what Brexit means for our food system? We’ve compiled reports and responses from food and agriculture experts to give you a summary of the possible scenarios and next steps.
The current situation
- 27% of the UK’s food is currently sourced from other EU countries. This rises to 40% for fruit and vegetables. Overall the UK is only about 60% food self-sufficient.
- The UK’s food system currently operates under EU legislation and infrastructure, including the Common Agricultural Policy; the Common Fisheries Policy; shared legislation on food labelling, standards and safety; trade and labour agreements; shared policies on public health, environment, biodiversity, waste, water quality and other areas.
- Farmers in the UK currently receive around £3bn a year in subsidies from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, making up 35-50% of total gross income for farms. An average cereal farm in the UK earns around £100,000, of which £55,000 comes from the EU single farm payment.
- 60% of our food and drinks exports currently go the EU and are worth £1 billion to our economy.
- The EU is the world’s largest single market.
- £60 billion worth of assets in the UK food and drink industry are held by foreign companies. 40% of this is held by EU companies.
- Trading in the EU, even if not a member, requires common standards on labelling, food safety and animal health and welfare. [i]
‘Implications of BREXIT for UK Agriculture’, a report from the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, examines processes and options for leaving the EU, and what this means for agricultural legislation, trade and industry.[ii]
- ‘It is difficult to see exit as beneficial to the UK farming sector, or to the UK food and drink industry more generally. [p.31]
- A simple free trade agreement with the EU is probably the preferred option for the UK, but that this may be difficult to achieve, especially if restrictions on free movement are also desired. The report considers the existing Norwegian and Swiss models but argues against both on the basis of the UK having to follow a large body of EU rules with no influence over how they are agreed. [30, 35]
- Likely to see reduction in farming subsidies (particularly under CAP Pillar 1), less generous trade terms and not much regulatory reduction, as the UK is not a ‘big player’ in terms of international agricultural trade. 
- Next steps:
- continue to function as member of the EU during negotiations, until the withdrawal comes into force – probably after two years. 
- agree interim arrangements to bridge the transition out of EU frameworks, such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). 
‘Food, the UK and the EU: Brexit or Bremain?’, Tim Lang and Victoria Schoen, for the Food Research Collaboration. This Briefing Paper explores existing UK and EU food policy and the implication of Brexit and Bremain on our food system.
- ‘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.’ [p.2]
- ‘The post-Brexit food world will be characterised by volatility, disruption and uncertainty. Food import costs will rise if the price of sterling falls.’ [p.2]
- The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) are flawed ‘but many failings have been addressed and there is a case for further improvement rather than abandonment. Leave campaigners argue that money and policy could be better targeted outside of this framework, as well as reducing red tape.’ [p.2]
- Regardless of Brexit or Bremain, the EU food system needs ‘urgent reform’, facing issues of climate change, demographic change, changes in diet and supply chains, and needing to shift to healthier and more sustainable food. ‘If current change is too slow and vested interests are too powerful, Brexit merely adds new complications, risks and uncertainties.’ [p.2][iii]
- ‘NFU Council resolved that on the balance of existing evidence available to us at present, the interests of farmers are best served by our continuing membership of the European Union.’
- The NFU have launched the sector’s most significant consultation over the impact of Brexit and what a future domestic farming policy should look like.
- NFU commitments for next steps:
- To achieve the best possible access Europe’s markets, which will remain extremely important to Britain’s farmers.
- To get access to markets in the rest of the world, while ensuring we are protected from imports which are produced to lower standards.
- To ensure our farmers and growers can get the necessary supplies of labour, both seasonal and full-time.
- To build a British agricultural policy which is as simple as possible, adapted to our needs and guarantees parity of treatment with European farmers, who will still be our principal competitors. There must be a common framework of a British policy, while allowing a necessary degree of flexibility to devolved governments.
- Regulations and product approvals must be proportionate and based on risk and science.[iv]
- ‘As an alliance of all the leading organisations working to improve food and farming in the UK, the mood amongst many of our members is one of shock’.
- ‘The Government now has no excuse for hiding behind others over inaction on the issues that will affect our country and its citizens’.
- Uncertainties regarding future health, environmental legislation and workers’ rights, which were previously been defined by the EU. Sustain are working to make voices of food campaigners heard in the changes ahead:
- subsidies going to UK farmers, which made up a significant amount of the money sent to, and received back from, the EU.
- the government 25-year food and farming plan.
- renegotiation of Common Fisheries Policy, Common Agricultural Policy and trade agreements.[v]
- ‘One of the Soil Association’s key charitable objectives is to preserve, conserve and protect the environment and our view is that these objectives were far more likely to be achieved as part of the EU’.
- UK will still be required to comply with EU organic standards in order to trade.
- Soil Association will be working closely with UK government to develop best solutions to wildlife, environment, organic farmers and vulnerable communities.[vi]
Any silver linings?
The prevailing feeling amongst sustainable food and farming experts is that the Leave vote will have negative consequences on our food system. However, the Remain campaign state that there are positives which could come out of a transition:
- Simpler and more locally tailored farming legislation, funding and policies
- Chance to lead on progressive farming practices, e.g. the UK is currently leading in the area of animal welfare.[vii]
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