Political Print: a few sandwiches short of a Brexit picnic

Ministers are finally waking up to the looming food crisis but can they find a solution before March 29th? By Nick Hughes.

First the good news on Brexit: the BLT is safe. That’s according to the Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, who took the unusual but courageous step of using a sandwich analogy to reassure the public about the UK’s readiness for a no-deal scenario.

Raab’s intervention in August was timely and welcome, yet his bacon-related promises could not obscure other unanswered questions. Where, for instance, were assurances on the future of prawn mayo and chicken salad? Or the Print’s current “go-to”, avo and chipotle chickpea salad wrap? Will the newly sovereign UK be a place where such bold, up-and-coming flavours can flourish? Or will they suffer a similar fate to the red squirrel and be brutally displaced by an influx of New York pastrami-style deli bagels? These, and other fundamental questions on the future of our food supply, remain unanswered.

Indeed, with less than six months to go until the UK officially exits the EU, there remains almost no clarity on how food will continue to flow in and out of the UK after March 29th next year. And with each passing day the no-deal scenario that the food industry unanimously fears the most looms ever larger.

The Print has remarked previously on how food was largely absent from the Brexit debate for a long time, but in recent months the issue has risen up the political agenda. Apocalyptic talk of food rotting in ports under a no-deal scenario has jolted the government into action. Industry sources report that behind the scenes policymakers are beginning to discuss a “no-deal deal” (yes, really) which entails sensible people (for some still exist) putting together sticking-plaster plans so that, at one minute past midnight on Brexit day, planes will still fly and food will still flow.

In the meantime, Theresa May continues to pretend that her Chequers deal, rejected by the majority of her own MPs and dismissed by EU leaders in Salzburg last week, is still deliverable. The ambition set out in the white paper is for a UK-EU free trade area for goods that would ensure frictionless access to each other’s markets underpinned by a “common rulebook” on regulations where any divergence would require new checks and controls at the border.

The plan is not perfect, but neither is it a million miles away from the vision broadly shared by trade bodies representing businesses across the food supply chain, which have made it clear that continued frictionless trade with the EU and access to migrant labour remain the highest priorities for the industry. On labour, the government has already made small concessions towards a flexible future arrangement. This month, the home secretary and environment secretary announced plans to allow fruit and vegetable farmers to employ up to 2,500 migrant workers from outside the EU for up to six months, alleviating labour shortages during peak production periods. The move has received a cautious welcome by farming groups, but it covers only a fraction of the 60,000 migrants currently employed on a seasonal basis in agriculture and ignores the 12% of the total UK hospitality workforce that is made up of EU nationals and the 120,000 who work in food manufacturing.

On trade the picture is far less clear. One suggestion that has won favour among arch-Brexiteers is that the UK could remove all tariffs on food imports on day one and start importing cheaper ingredients from third countries such as the US, China and Australia. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and there are flaws in the plan. For one, experts suggest it would take years to build the supply chain infrastructure that would enable UK retailers and wholesalers to source a consistent supply of fresh products from faraway markets at the scale they would require and of the quality UK consumers have come to expect.

Even if this process could be turbo-charged, under World Trade Organization “most-favoured nation” rules the UK would have to unilaterally set tariffs at zero at least until bespoke free trade deals have been agreed. These commonly take several years to come to fruition, meaning that while tariffs remained at zero EU producers would maintain unfettered access to the UK market, while UK businesses would potentially have to pay tariffs of up to 50% on EU exports. British exporters would be placed at a huge disadvantage, while importers could reasonably be expected to preserve the just-in-time EU supply chains that evolved over many years to be as seamless as possible.

The UK farming industry, meanwhile, has warned it would face devastation should the floodgates be opened. The National Farmers Union has said a trade liberalisation scenario would have a “hugely negative impact on the viability of many British farms”, which would be unable to compete with food produced at mass scale and to potentially less stringent health and environmental standards. The union maintains that a free-trade agreement between the EU and UK would be the best outcome for both British farmers and the British public.

Concern over future trade policy comes at a time when the UK government is proposing a radically new approach to farming. The first UK agriculture bill in 50 years had its first reading in Parliament this month. As expected, it proposes a reallocation of financial support away from land-based payments towards paying farmers for managing land or water in a way that protects the environment, mitigates climate change or improves animal health. There are also new powers to ensure more transparency of supply chain information and to clamp down on unfair trading practices.

The proposals set out in the bill represent a significant departure from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), to which UK farming policy has been bound for half a century and which the environment secretary, Michael Gove, has described as “burdensome and outdated”.

Although details of how it will be enforced remain sketchy, the bill has received a positive reception in many quarters, especially the focus on public money for public goods. Yet the government has also faced criticism for the timing of the Bill. The NFU president, Minette Batters, said it was “foolhardy” to embark on a new course for the future of agriculture without knowing the trading environment in which it will be set. Batters also criticised a lack of focus on food production, an intervention that looks set to reignite the divisive debate about whether environmental stewardship and food production are competing or complementary ambitions.

Other groups were disappointed by the bill’s narrow focus. Despite DEFRA publishing a previous consultation document titled “Health and Harmony”, Sustain said it was “sorely disappointed” that the government had failed to take the opportunity to link farm payments to positive public health outcomes by establishing targets to increase fruit and vegetable production or rewarding the reduction of antibiotic use in farming.

Sustain said it would also like to have seen specific measures for getting sustainable healthy local food into public procurement like schools and hospitals and more emphasis on the infrastructure needed to support shorter supply chains.

The bill will now begin its progression through Parliament, a process that is unlikely to be smooth based on the reaction so far.

As for Gove, the demands of the DEFRA job keep stacking up. This month, the National Audit Office (NAO) released a report that documented in devastating detail the epic challenge DEFRA faces in preparing for a no-deal Brexit. It concluded that in the event of a no-deal scenario there is a high risk that DEFRA will fail to deliver its full work programme and will be forced to prioritise specific workstreams, leaving many businesses facing loss of market access and additional checks and controls at the border.

As the clock ticks down to Brexit the full impact on food is only now beginning to emerge. Sandwiches, on the face it, look like being the least of our troubles.

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