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02 October 2019

Brexit: an opportunity for local food systems?

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Brexit presents big risks for food supply in the UK, but could it also offer an opportunity for the country to change the way it produces and sells food? Maybe, but only if the government step-ups and takes local food systems seriously

With the UK currently set to crash out of the European Union on 31 October, Britons are particularly worried about their food supplies. A recent survey found that 64% of UK adults believe food price hikes and shipping delays are the mostly likely consequences of a no-deal Brexit. In the event of no-deal, a third of those surveyed are most concerned about increasing food prices, and a quarter about food supplies in shops.

The UK Government was recently forced to reveal its no-deal plan called Operation Yellowhammer. This suggests that people are right to be concerned. It warns that supplies of certain fresh foods and critical items for food supply chains may fall. “These two factors will not cause an overall shortage of food in the UK but will reduce availability and choice of products and will increase price,” it states.

Although it presents risks for food security, Honor Eldridge, Head of Policy at the Sustainable Food Trust, says that Brexit could also offer a unique opportunity for the UK take a good look at the future of its farming system. “Faced with growing populations and with increased climate change, how do we actually support a farming system that will thrive into the future and meet those challenges, as opposed to focusing purely on production?” she says.

The Bristol-based charity listened to the concerns of farmers regarding the uncertainty over Brexit and published a report. Ben Pugh, the founder of Farmdrop, an online store that delivers food direct from producers to consumers across London, told them: “If there is one silver lining from Brexit, it is that it has given the UK a once in a generation opportunity to completely overhaul the way we regulate and subsidise farming in Britain.”

British farmers receive around £3.2 billion in subsidies but the vast majority of that money does not support sustainable or higher animal welfare production –  only 3% of UK agricultural land is organic and a quarter of all cropland is used to produce livestock feed. Payments under the existing Common Agricultural Policy are based on how much land is owned. Not only does this reward large landowners (recipients of the subsidy include the Duke of Westminster, the Queen and a Saudi Prince), it also means that we are using public money to subsidise the production of factory farmed food.”

Post-Brexit, I am worried about the potential scope of new free trade deals with non-EU countries. As with Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, those of us who care passionately about the quality and provenance of food will need to pressure the Government to make sure that free trade with the rest of the world does not mean importing poor quality food through the back door.”

The UK produces around half of the food it consumes, according to figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Eldridge believes that there is huge potential for this to increase. But she says that this isn’t as simple as consumers buying more British produce. “It also requires government funding in order to bring that infrastructure in place, so that you do have localised markets, so you do see public procurement policies addressing the need for increased local supply,” she explains. She adds that Britain has a very centralised supply chain that favours scale and that would need to be redressed.

Tim Benton, an expert in food systems at the University of Leeds and Chatham House, looked at UK food production for the supermarket chain Morrisons. His report revealed a rapid increase in global food trading over the past 30 years, with the UK now importing £39 billion worth of food from 168 countries.

The report calls for the UK to build a more resilient system by increasing local production to provide more – and more diverse – food. It argues that this will protect the country’s farming economy and environment, and give more clarity about where food comes from.

“What it really needs from a government perspective is to recognise that there are multiple benefits over and above the cheapest possible price to having a diverse rural economy,” Benton says. “It's not all about can we compete for a competitive export market.” A resilient local food supply has a value and Brexit preparations show how fragile the UK’s food system is, he adds.

Post-Brexit, Benton says that UK agricultural policy could be used to stimulate local markets. He cites, as an example, a change in the way contracts are written for companies that supply apples to schools in Copenhagen, to shift the focus to the number of apple varieties they can offer, rather than just the volume of apples. This has led to a resurgence of local orchards and increased the diversity of their produce. “That's a perfectly positive market friendly, not trade distorting way, of actually building up again what [the UK] used to do quite well, which was fruit and vegetables in a local context,” he explains.

The European research project SKIN has been looking at other examples of short food supply chains across Europe. Patrick Crehan, from the management consultancy CKA, says that one of the first examples they saw was a co-operative in Paris. It has 350 members who each give two-and-a-half hours of their time every month, and sells locally sourced food. Crehan says that this co-op is interesting because it has a policy of just paying the price the farmer asks – “they don't bargain down or anything like that”. If the product doesn’t sell, then they go back to the farmer.

“What's fascinating is that in this system the farmer ends up getting a price that is 20 to 30 percent above what they would be paid say by the supermarkets or the big processors, and the consumer ends up paying a price that's 20 to 30 percent lower than what they would pay in the supermarket,” Crehan says.

However, Crehan also saw examples of people selling produce at the farm gate and struggling to make a success of it. “The bottom line is that to sell a significant amount of produce directly to the consumer the farmer really needs to get professional about retail, marketing distribution all of that kind of stuff,” he says.

After Brexit, Crehan says that such locally produced food could be cheaper than the alternatives. “If you compare cost of food today and the cost of sourcing locally the general wisdom is that sourcing locally is going to be more expensive, but you really need to compare that with the cost of buying in the future. You will not buy as you buy today.” he says. This is due to changes in tariffs on food and other items linked to food supply, and the cost of delays due to increased paper work with the loss of frictionless trade, he explains.

Changing agricultural policy, setting up new supply chains and organising co-ops might be a good way to reorganise food supply chains in the medium- to long-term, but if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal, as the Yellowhammer plans show, their could be immediate issues with food security.

Eldridge thinks that local supply chains could still help, but says that it is difficult to make such a switch in a short timescale. And, again, it requires government will and support. “You need to see government making plans to how they can support local UK businesses to meet that gap today and ahead of a no deal Brexit,” she says. provides its content to all media free of charge. We would appreciate if you could acknowledge as the source of the content.