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Brexit set to make UK more dependent on food imports, MPs warn

Labour shortages largely caused by Brexit are set to make Britain more dependent on food imports, MPs have warned.

A new report by the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said UK food production industry would "permanently" shrink unless the problems were deal with.


It comes despite some Brexiteers saying leaving the EU could make Britain more self-sufficient in food.


MPs say vacancies in the food production sector are estimated to be 500,000 out of 4.1 million roles in August 2021.


These labour shortages “due principally to Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic”, the MPs said, citing evidence from industry leaders.


Seasonal agricultural labourers from the EU who previously helped with the harvest each year now need to apply for a work scheme – and many are staying away.


As a result MPs and industry figures have said crops are going unharvested and rotting in the fields.


“We found clear evidence that labour shortages have badly affected the food and farming industry — threatening food security, the welfare of animals and the mental health of those working in the sector,” the inquiry report said.


“The food sector is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector but faces permanent shrinkage if a failure to address its acute labour shortages leads to wage rises, price increases, reduced competitiveness and, ultimately, food production being exported and increased imports”.


The same committee also found in January that "blind optimism" shown by ministers about their plan for post-Brexit farming subsidies could drive UK farms out of business and also increase reliance on food imports.


The UK currently imports 48 per cent of the total food it consumes, a proportion which has been rising consistently.


Some Tories have previously suggested that Brexit could make Britain more self-sufficient and grow more of its own food.


In 2017 during Brexit talks then Cabinet member Chris Grayling said a hard Brexit could "mean that producers, supermarkets, bought more at home, that British farmers produced more, that they bought more from around the world".


Ahead of the Brexit vote Liz Truss, who is now foreign secretary, said it was a "disgrace" that Britain imported so much of the fruit and cheese it consumed.


MPs on the Environment Committee said they were “struck by government’s failure to grasp the labour issues” now facing the food sector.


Calling on ministers to “radically shift” their attitudes, they claimed the government had failed to demonstrate a “strong understanding” of the issues and had even sought in some instances “pass the blame onto the sector on the basis of incorrect information about its own immigration system”.


“The government must radically shift its attitude and work together with the sector to devise solutions that speedily help address the problems it faces, in the short, medium and long-term to help the UK’s food industry and enable it to thrive,” they added.


Neil Parish, the Conservative MP who chairs the committee, said: “In 2021 farmers faced an extraordinary situation — crops were being left to rot in the fields and healthy pigs were culled due to a lack of workers.


“This has serious implications for the well-being of the people who put food on our tables today and in the future. The government’s attitude to the plight of food and farming workers was particularly disappointing.”


He added: “While some of the reforms put forward by government have helped in the short term, and we agreed that we must look to expand the domestic workforce – this won’t happen overnight.


“In the meantime, it must use the powers available – including over immigration policy — to support the sector. Otherwise we will export our food production and import more of our food.


“Even more importantly, government must change its attitude to the food and farming sector – trusting them and acting promptly when they raise concerns. Our food and farmers depend on it.”


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