If a no-deal Brexit happens, should we really worry about getting enough to eat? According to industry experts — as things stand — the answer is yes.
“Leaving the Single Market means an end to the automatic rights for trucks to drive and planes to fly between the UK and the EU27 countries, and the UK will lose access to EU flying rights agreements with other countries,” warns James Hookham, deputy chief executive of the Freight Transport Association, whose members handle roughly 70 per cent of the UK’s imports and exports.
“The UK could only have permits for between 140 and 1,000 British lorries to travel to and from the continent per day. Currently up to 10,000 lorries pass through the Port of Dover alone daily — so this number is woefully short.”
Hookham’s warning comes days after the UK’s National Farmer’s Union (NFU) calculated that in any given year the UK would run out of British-grown food by August 7 of that year. So, if the UK was forced to switch to eating only British-grown food on January 1, 2019, the country would run out of food on August 7, 2019. Figures from the NFU show that the UK’s self-sufficiency has dipped, from an average of 74 per cent of food needs met by UK produce in the 1980s and early 90s, to roughly 60 per cent over the past 20 years.
At the end of July, Brexit secretary Dominic Raab told parliament that the government was making plans to stockpile food in case negotiations with the EU over a post-Brexit trade deal failed. The task, he said, would be overseen by industry rather than Whitehall.
The following day, Theresa May said plans for stocking up on essential goods were underway, and suggested people take “reassurance and comfort” from the government’s preparations. “This is not just about stockpiling, it is about making sure that we will be able to continue to do the things that are necessary,” she said.
Food and retail experts were not reassured and comforted, but stunned. “If the day after Brexit suddenly nothing can get through port, there is no stockpiling scenario that solves that problem,” says Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Food Storage and Distribution Federation. “Stockpiling conjures up vision of people putting cans in warehouse today to use in six months time. We do not have that warehouse capacity – never have, never will.”
The British Retail Consortium, which represents the majority of UK retailers, agrees. “Nearly one third of the food eaten by 65 million people in the UK comes from EU farms and factories,” a spokesperson says. “In 2016, 10,000 containers per day from the EU passed through UK ports – carrying 50,000 tonnes of food per day. Fresh dairy, meat, fruit and vegetables would rot. Stockpiling of food is not a practical response, industry has not been approached by government to begin planning for this, retailers do not have the facilities to house stockpiled goods and, in the case of fresh produce, it is simply not possible to do so.”
There are 385 refrigerated warehouses across the UK, according to the FSDF, but more than 90 per cent of them are in constant use already. Thanks in part to the expansion of online retailers, non-refrigerated space vacancy rates are very low. Sources report that suppliers and logistics companies have been enquiring about availability around the country over the past few weeks. Even if the space were available, however, it’s doubtful the country could afford to fill it. Britain currently spends some £50 billion a year on medicine and non-perishable food from the EU, according to figures from the Institute of Government. Stockpiling one month of these supplies would cost around £4bn – more than the entire no-deal planning budget of £3bn set aside in 2016.
The UK government disposed of its last food stockpile back in 1991 – 200,000 tons of flour, yeast, sugar, fat and biscuits intended to feed 40 million people for 60 days in the event of a nuclear attack. The government’s advice on food stockpiling to families then was to store between seven and 14 days worth of food – including tinned meat, soup, pilchards, luncheon meat and full cream evaporated milk.
The Department for Exiting the European Union has modified Raab’s position. “While we are making sensible preparations for all eventualities as we leave the EU, there are no plans to stockpile food,” a spokesperson says. “Whether we negotiate a deal or not, this will not be necessary. The government has well established ways of working with the food industry to prevent disruption – and we will be using these to support preparations for leaving the EU.” Details of the preparations – including advice for businesses and consumers – will be published in a series of advisory documents across late August and September, with 20 documents devoted to food.
But the industry remains unconvinced. “This idea that government is meeting the industry to discuss a grand plan. If there is a conversation it’s not something we or anyone else we deal with is involved in,” says Brennan. “What we’re actually talking about is changing supply chains – slowing down the way food comes into this country. Today’s model is that you pull food out of ground in Spain and it ends up on UK shelves the next day. It’s moving all the time. If you delay a lorry by two minutes at Dover you cause tailbacks of around 30 miles – so we would need to hold food for a while either in a warehouse outside Calais or just keep it on a truck parked up and waiting. That’s going to cost us a lot of money and change the way we eat fundamentally.”
Brennan believes the UK won’t run out of food. Retailers are looking at sourcing from other countries if European supply chains are seriously disrupted: for instance, bad weather in Spain last year meant lettuce was temporarily imported by air from Latin America, increasing the price and leading to rationing in UK supermarkets. Hookham points out, however, that if the UK leaves the EU27 without securing some flying rights agreements, planes from 44 countries around the world would not be legally permitted to arrive or depart from the UK. If there are restrictions on food, companies – including Amazons UK boss Doug Gurr – have warned the government to expect civic unrest.
“People in the 1940s were used to a restricted diet, a narrow range of options and occasional periods of hunger,” explains Polly Russell, food historian and columnist for the Financial Times. “When rationing was introduced, people really struggled – it was hugely unpopular and the population was restive. If you were to open a larder in the 1940s or early 50s you’d see spam, corned beef and semolina. Open a larder today and you’ll see garlic, tuna, olive oil – our food tastes have changed significantly. Rationing would make us more than restive.”
The things that would either vanish or show the greatest price increase would be fresh fruit and vegetables, Russell warns. 85 percent of the UK’s vegetable imports come from the EU, with the Netherlands providing the bulk of the UK’s tomatoes and onions, Spain providing most of the cauliflower and celery and France the leading potato supplier. While most of the country’s bananas are from Latin America, apples are imported from France and South Africa and Spain provides over half of all mandarins.
“We already have a public health crisis with obesity and diabetes,” Russell says. “Removing fresh fruit and vegetables would potentially be fatal.”