The UK’s withdrawal from the EU will have wide-reaching consequences for the UK and the remaining 27 member states. Arguably, for no other sector are the challenges and opportunities of Brexit as extensive as they are for food and agriculture.
For almost half a century, the UK’s food and agricultural sectors have been intrinsically and intricately linked to its membership of the European Community and, subsequently, the EU. The UK’s food system is shaped by EU agricultural policy (which influences what and how food is grown), UK regulatory policy (which is informed by EU standards for food safety, quality and the environment), and EU trade agreements and associated tariffs. The availability and price of foodstuffs are the product of an interplay between this regulatory framework (the ‘rules’ of the market), market actors delivering food for profit, and consumer demand for different types of foods and prices. Ultimately, the food and agriculture sectors are influenced by the strength of the economy, particularly inflation and currency exchange rates, which affect consumers’ ability and willingness to pay. Outside the EU, the UK will need to redesign many of its food and farming policies, as well as strike its own trading arrangements.
The complexities of reforming post-Brexit food and agriculture sectors run deeper than economic and institutional entanglement. Price, safety, nutritional content and provenance of food are all deeply emotive among populations.
But the complexities of reforming post-Brexit food and agriculture sectors run deeper than economic and institutional entanglement. Price, safety, nutritional content and provenance of food are all deeply emotive for consumers. Food and landscape management have high social, cultural and political salience. For instance, farming currently occupies three-quarters of the UK’s land area, providing a range of ‘ecosystem services’ and contributing to the nation’s cultural and environmental heritage beyond the food and fibres that are harvested from the land itself. The countryside informs the UK national identity and is associated both with bucolic imagery and more traumatic shared experiences such as the devastation of livestock as a result of the 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Meanwhile, improvements in science and technology are providing sufficient ‘big data’ to shed light on the immense environmental, social and health costs that food production and consumption impose on society – whether the healthcare costs resulting from conditions linked to poor air quality arising from intensive agriculture, or the global burden of ill health arising from obesogenic food environments.
The challenges of Brexit are clear. The tight timeline imposed by the Brexit negotiations, the complexities of the process, and the political pressure in the UK to secure new trade deals could easily lead to hasty decisions that are poorly conceived and that may become impossible to correct. Put simply, the opportunities presented by this transformative juncture could be easily squandered.
However, a carefully managed Brexit could also offer a historic opportunity for the UK to reassess and reformulate legislation, policies, practices and institutional arrangements that take into account the needs of different actors in the food system (such as farmers, retailers, consumers, or health-conscious and environmentally aware citizens). A well-implemented food policy after Brexit, as acknowledged in early 2019 by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, could encompass:
- A food strategy that takes better account of the socio-economic factors and trends relating to diet and health conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and other diet-related illnesses, and allows for interventions to promote better health through diet;
- An end to support for inefficient area-based payments, and a move to support genuine productivity enhancement, as well as support for public goods like clean air or climate change mitigation which stem from the improvement of soil health, the improvement of water quality and or the improvement of pollinator habitats;
- Better support for organic farming, landscape restoration and biodiversity enrichment, as well as improved public access to the countryside; and
- Maintaining high environmental and animal welfare standards, and ensuring that these are not bartered away in pursuit of a necessarily short-term trade-off.
This paper explores the existing agriculture and food systems within the UK and the challenges the government faces in delivering a sustainable, affordable and healthy food system. It addresses the political realities of Brexit and the roles of the UK government and the devolved administrations in determining food policy after Brexit. It considers the impact that new trading arrangements could have on food prices, environmental and food standards, and what this may mean for the UK’s reputation internationally. It then sets out the options available for devising a more holistic UK food system for the future. UK fisheries policy is out of the scope of this paper.