Britain could be facing the biggest shock to its food supply system in 75 years, experts warn, as crisis talks for a post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union hang in the balance.
Boris Johnson was heading to Brussels on Wednesday for dinner with EU chief Ursula von der Leyen, in the hope of securing a deal before Britain leaves the EU single market on December 31.
Even if Johnson strikes a last-minute agreement, it could be too late to stop food prices soaring and prevent shortages of fresh produce, much of which is imported from Europe, industry and food policy experts say.
“In terms of the possible precarity of supply lines and keeping everyone food secure in Britain, it hasn’t been this bad since the Second World War,” said Christian Reynolds, a senior lecturer at the City, University of London’s Food Policy Unit.
The UK has just days to break the impasse with the other 26 members states. Among sticking points are the rights of European fleets to fish in UK waters.
The prospect of food shortages comes amid the country’s worst recession in 300 years, exacerbated by the economic fallout from Covid-19 pandemic.
Britain produces 55 per cent of its own food, with 26 per cent coming from the EU and the rest from other parts of the world, according to UK government statistics.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, apart from an initial rush in March when many people stocked up on goods, supermarket shelves in the UK have been well stocked.
“It (the food supply system) has done very well over Covid and shoppers will expect the same thing over Brexit – but they may not see it,” Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation told a parliamentary select committee on Tuesday.
“With just 14 working days to go, we have no clue what’s going to happen in terms of whether we do or don’t face tariffs.
“And that isn’t just a big imposition. It’s a binary choice as to whether you do business in most cases. My members will not know whether they’re exporting their products after 1 January, or whether they’ll be able to afford to import them and charge the price that the tariff will dictate.”
UK border checks could cause long delays for freight lorries, which could be forced wait for up to a day in special “lorry parks” while drivers have papers checked by customs officers. One huge lorry park, capable of taking up to 1,700 lorries, was being built outside Ashford in the southern English county of Kent.
The anticipated delays have forced many EU food suppliers to scale down their exports to Britain, industry representatives say.
“Fruit manufacturers are talking about cutting food orders to the UK by 50 per cent in January because they don’t want to have to write that product off because it’s going to be stuck in queues,” Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, told LBC radio. “There isn’t as much confidence from an EU perspective in terms of our ability in the event of a deal – or without a deal – to continue trading as they are at the moment, and that’s a significant issue as well.”
A leaked UK government document this week outlined some scenarios in a no-deal Brexit: “Reduced [food] supply availability, especially of certain fresh products” and “supply of some critical dependencies for the food supply chain … could be reduced”.
It also said “low income groups will be disproportionately affected by any price rises in food and fuel”. The document raised the possibility of social unrest.
Food poverty was a growing problem in the UK before the pandemic hit earlier this year. Between April 2019 and March 2020, the number of people needing food banks rose 18 per cent, according to The Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest food bank charity.
A report published on Tuesday by the think-tank Centre for Social Justice said more than a million poor UK households regularly struggled to put food on the table.
Moreover, an increasing number of Britons eat cheap, processed food high in sugar and salt - the sort of food that’s a big contributor to the UK’s obesity problem. Obesity is a major factor in Covid-19 complications and deaths.
The impact of new EU tariffs on food would hit the UK particularly hard in winter when demand for imported food typically rises. Shortages in some products could be felt for up to three months from January 1.
“The first few weeks could be very tough in terms of costs and supply chain issues,” said Reynolds. “To minimise negative impacts and food insecurity, the food system needs clarity and confidence and we need it now.”
The UK government has done little to reassure the public that it will fulfil its duty to feed the nation.
Researchers working with civil servants to formulate a national food strategy were told the work was being suspended to focus on the Covid-19 pandemic.
It took the campaign of a Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford to persuade the government to reverse an earlier decision not to supply meals to the nation’s poorest children during the school holidays. More than 900,000 more children applied for free school meals as a direct result of the pandemic, adding to the 1.4 million who were already entitled to it at the beginning of the year.
Johnson’s initial upbeat Brexit strategy with the EU was to declare the UK could “have our cake and eat it”, meaning Britain could continue to reap the benefits of a trade agreement with its nearest and largest trading partner without any of the disadvantages.
“Cakeism” is now part of the country’s lexicon. It battled it out with other Brexit buzzwords for Oxford’s word of the year in 2018, but lost to “toxic”.