Even the hungriest politico is unlikely to have much of an appetite for the referendum after four months of slowly stewed debate, which has been enlivened only by the occasional, somewhat spicy personal attack. But although we have heard quite a bit about the likely impact of Brexit on our farmers, with the subject even intruding on the otherworldly idyll of The Archers, discussion of the effects on the food industry as a whole doesn’t seem to have got much further than a plaintive cry: “Won’t someone think of the cheeses?!”
Yet the British Retail Consortium believes that leaving the EU could have more significant consequences for our food producers than for any other part of the retail sector – and it’s not just about the Brie. We import 27 per cent of our food from the EU and 19 per cent from outside it; to carry on doing so after Brexit would require new trade agreements, not only with the EU but with many other countries. Britain hasn’t negotiated its own deals of this kind since 1969.
Those in the industry – 60 per cent of whom believe that Brexit will be bad for business, according to a recent survey – worry about the cost of importing ingredients. The former Tesco CEO Terry Leahy claims that the supply chain will be “dislocated” by a Leave vote. Another area of concern is Britain’s access to export markets and labour, something that seems to have passed Adam by in The Archers. A man who employs seasonal workers from eastern Europe to pick his soft fruit should be more concerned about who might be harvesting next year’s crop if things go his way.
Instead, Adam’s argument in favour of getting out of the EU references those familiar Brexit bugbears: red tape and bureaucracy. There is no denying that the European project has not been straightforwardly positive for food producers such as this fictional farmer. The surplus scandals of the 1980s haven’t melted away as neatly as the notorious “butter mountain”, and the inequities of the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies are evident to anyone who has ever been stuck behind a fleet of huge, shiny combines on a rural French road, or had anything to do with the British fishing industry. Yet reform is ongoing and Tim Lang and Victoria Schoen, the authors of a briefing paper on the likely impact of Brexit on our food chain, believe that there’s a good case “for further improvement rather than abandonment”.
Although the EU imposes thousands of regulations on its members, including many that relate to our food system, the infamous ban on overly curvy cucumbers was repealed in 2008 following pressure from member states including Britain, and the analyst Kate Trollope describes the current Brussels administration as having “a positive aversion” to new food legislation. Indeed, it is only reluctantly considering imposing limits on industrial trans fats in foods, even though they are banned in the US and in several EU member states. Does the UK food and farming industry want to lay itself open to claims from the Continent that our produce does not live up to EU standards?
Then there is the prominence the EU has given to regional specialities such as Herefordshire cider, Welsh lamb and Arbroath smokies, not only by protecting them from imitations but also by promoting them to the world. As Bee Wilson wrote recently, “It was the EU who reminded us how special our food could be when we had almost lost faith in it ourselves.”
If Britain wakes up on 24 June as an ex-member of the EU, we’ll still be able to wash down our croissants with a glass of champagne, celebratory or otherwise, and we’ll still have our French cheeses and Italian wines – but who knows what else will be on the menu, further down the line?
This article appears in the 14 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink