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18 March 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 4:37pm

Food and drink is the UK’s biggest manufacturing sector, and it needs protection

The chair of the Food and Drink Manufacturing APPG explains why the UK must protect a resource worth £110bn a year.

By John Stevenson MP

After the end of the Second World War, it was said by Winston Churchill that the only threat that truly scared him throughout the six-year conflict was that posed by German U-Boats to British merchant shipping. The reason Churchill, the public face of stoic British defiance, was shaken by the struggle that played out on and under the Atlantic Ocean was the prospect that were the Battle of the Atlantic to have been lost, Britain may well have starved. Throughout human history, the fastest way to beat a nation into submission has been to take away its ability to feed itself.

This historical comparison helps draw attention to a truth perhaps overlooked by arguing for the sector’s importance primarily by referring to the fact that it adds £110bn a year to our economy. A thriving and prosperous food and drinks manufacturing sector is deeply important to our national security. Just as we look to our armed forces to keep us safe from any threat that may come our way, we must not forget that the farms and factories keeping us fed could one day be relied upon to keep us going in a time of great peril. Which is why it is of such paramount importance that the government continues to put our food and drinks manufacturing sector at the very centre of any post-Brexit industrial strategy.

The government has so far made strides towards ensuring the industry is sheltered and nurtured through the inevitable turbulence of the transitional Brexit phase. Just this month, a draft withdrawal agreement between the European Commission and the UK was released, outlining assurances that UK manufacturers will be allowed to continue trading freely across all 27 EU borders beyond the UK’s EU withdrawal date, right up until 2021. This is significant, as a guarantee of continued access to the EU beyond the Brexit deadline will allow for time to secure post-Brexit trade agreements, both with the EU and with countries further afield. Because Brexit is truly an opportunity, one that could be seized upon by a sector perhaps less flashy than our aviation and automotive industries but worth more than both put together. Our food and drinks manufacturing industry is an example of why Brexit is a cause for excitement, as long as the government continues its commitment to keeping it protected and supported.

Norwich Research Park is home to 70 R&D businesses, and this year will be opening the Quadram Institute, specialising in genetic research. It is already attracting attention from food manufacturing companies across the globe. As a nation we have long been guilty of fatalism and complaints of decline. We could be accused of possessing a self-deprecating national character. Now is not the time to be humble. Now is the time to celebrate the globally recognised assets we do have, and to take advantage of the opportunity Brexit will create.

I do not say this as someone who campaigned for Brexit. I voted to remain in the EU, but I believe in the democratic process and I believe in a pragmatic approach to seizing the moment. It is not time to be timid, it is time to be confident and to successfully complete our “global pivot.” The world will need 60 per cent more food by 2050 in order to feed a population of 9bn. The vast majority of this population growth will occur outside of the EU. Brexit is an opportunity for us to export the expertise, skills and produce we have to offer directly to this growing market. At present, only one in five UK food manufacturers export. The UK’s global food and drink export market share was less than half of France and Germany’s share. As the world outside the EU becomes larger and wealthier, it will become hungrier, for more and for better quality food.

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The UK’s food and drinks manufacturing industry has a rich array of advantages when it comes to exporting globally to an increasingly discerning market. Our advanced R&D assets continually push forth our technological and scientific capabilities. This will be of ever more importance as the automation revolution gathers pace, transforming the manufacturing workplace. And our regulatory and compliance frameworks ensure our safety and quality standards are amongst the highest in the world, reassuring global customers that buying British means buying quality.

This is an argument perhaps best made by a dedicated specialist export organisation, whose purpose would be to foster links between UK food and drinks manufacturers and the global marketplace. Such an organization would demonstrate that we have confidence in our national manufacturing capabilities to be able to sell in any market, and its creation is supported by the Food and Drinks Federation, the representative body of the nation’s food and drinks manufacturers.

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Our food and drinks manufacturing industry is too important to gamble with. I am pleased to see that the government is taking its vital role in our economy and our national security seriously. It is paramount that food and drink manufacturing can thrive beyond Brexit. And this should be a driving force as the government negotiates its deal.

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