It seems hardly credible that it’s been a year since this column observed, rather mildly, as it turned out, that should the country vote to leave the European Union, the ramifications for food and farming would be serious. Frankly, at the time, that act of writing seemed more like an interesting exercise in “what ifs” than anything else – head firmly wedged in the liberal sand, I didn’t for a moment think any of my predictions would be put to the test.
I’ve put away a fair few croissants in the past 12 months without attracting the wrath of David Davis and, for all the scaremongering around imports, Parmesan cheese is still widely available as far north as Lerwick. But the longer-term uncertainty I prophesied is still very much on the menu, too.
Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University London, reckons that food is going to be the second-biggest issue from Brexit after the City of London, “so we’ve got to get our act together”. He estimates that 80 per cent of our current food legislation will need to be redrawn, which means we are facing some “very dangerous decisions”. Yet he concedes that there is opportunity here, too.
“Opportunity” is also the word that Alexia Robinson, the founder of Love British Food, uses in talking about Brexit. She describes Britain’s food and farming industry as one that “totally had its hands tied by EU regulations”, and is enthusiastic about the chance finally to educate consumers that “British farmers are producing the best-quality food in the world”, in a way that “a bonkers anomaly” of the present EU regulations prevents the government from doing.
“Everyone says, ‘Isn’t the Mediterranean so lucky to produce the most wonderful tomatoes?’ How many people say, ‘Aren’t we lucky that our pastures produce the most wonderful beef and lamb?’” Robinson says. She pauses. “I’d like to ask consumers, ‘Are you aware of what it’s like to be a pig in Poland?’”
Like Lang, she admits there is a great danger that opening the country to cheaper imports from outside the EU could drive a race to the bottom. “We need to make sure that the government imposes a rule that all food imported into the UK should conform to a certain standard.” But, she says, the “very British tradition” of free trade is “not necessarily a bad thing: there are some fairly ugly sides to EU protectionism”. She cites the collapse of the Ghanaian tomato industry as an example. “When people talk about the threat of imports, yes, there’s a worrying side, but it could be very positive, too.”
Both Lang and Robinson acknowledge the risks of changes to immigration legislation after Brexit; 20 per cent of British agricultural labour comes from abroad, and 30 per cent of those working in the food manufacturing sector. Robinson is typically buoyant on the subject: “I cannot believe that when the government actually looks at the labour requirements of the food industry they’re going to restrict migrant workers – in fact, it might actually clarify their position somewhat.” Lang, it is fair to say, is somewhat less confident.
With analysts suggesting that the price of food imported from the EU is likely to go up by 8 per cent after Britain’s departure, and the United States already eyeing us up as a potentially lucrative new market for foodstuffs banned under EU law, it’s certainly not going to be an easy ride. Better enjoy that glass of Pinot while you can still afford to.
This article appears in the 31 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning