Mixed menu on offer for post-Brexit Britain

Whether it’s EU workers’ rights to stay in the UK, farm subsidies, food labelling, environment policies or food waste initiatives, the full impact of Brexit on the food and hospitality industries still won’t be known for some considerable time. However, some clues as to the direction of which we are headed are starting to emerge. Marmite-gate was one clear indicator that food prices will rise – which anyone running a food business will almost certainly be only too aware of. Comments from the Farming Minister George Eustice about foie gras and GM production this week also provided some hints as to the way ahead (more on this below).

At a lecture on this very subject this week, food policy guru Professor Tim Lang, at City University, said he believed the overriding narrative was in fact one of the key slogans employed by the leave campaigners – taking back control.

He outlined all of the vast array of issues, legislation, regulation, responsibilities and initiatives that the British government must consider when it comes to food and farming and he questioned its capacity to do so. Prof Lang said that currently we were not in control of the food system but that Brexit could be seen as an opportunity to take control.

Defra figures show that we import 48% of our food and this is evidence of a failure of farmers – our food trade deficit is currently running at £21bn. But, he argued, when farmers are receiving only £9bn of the £201bn we spend on food every year, is it surprising they’re not motivated to produce more. Shortening supply chains and ensuring farmers get a bigger slice of the cake would ensure is a major part of the solution.

Recent cuts have seen organisations like the Food Standards Agency facing major resource issues, threatening the ability of British institutions to manage their existing roles and responsibilities, let alone those of their EU counterparts.Prof Lang said where once the FSA occupied five floors, it was now reduced to two. He urged all interested parties, including NGOs, the food industry and civil society, to come together in a progressive food alliance to help take control and shape the future of our food.

A ‘hard’ Brexit could well lead to a future in which products like Australian olive oil are commonplace in the UK, he predicted. And Prof Lang said that the steep decline in arable land could not be coming at a worse time, as we prepare to leave the Single Market. He cited Riverford as an inspiration to others of a successful business making maximum use of its land, using high environmental standards and keeping its supply chain short.

If taking back control really is the way ahead, then George Eustice’s responses to Parliamentary questions this week revealed that the Government is prepared to plough its own furrow, picking and choosing how to proceed, even on controversial issues. Asked about foie gras he said: “If any production were to occur, the Animal and Plant Health Agency would be asked to investigate and advise on any contravention of UK animal welfare laws.” This was taken as an indication that goose liver could soon be off menus.

And in another parliamentary answer Mr Eustice said that as part of the preparations for EU exit, the government was looking at possible future arrangements for the regulation of genetically modified organisms. Commentators interpreted this as paving the way for GM crops in the field off England, a move which Friends of the Earth described as a ‘devastating own goal’.

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