What If There Is No Cake?

As David Davis and his team return to Brussels to “get down to business on Brexit” for another week of negotiations, both the Conservative Government and the Labour opposition have been accused of wanting to “have their cake and eat it”. This being a reference to, frankly, deluded ambitions of what can be achieved in EU exit negotiations. Somewhat topically, Professor Tim Lang, of the Centre for Food Policy, has published a paper detailing the significant risks to UK food security following Brexit. The report sets out the stark, and frightening, reality of what Brexit could mean for the UK. Far from having our cake and eating it, we might not have our cake at all.

The UK is only capable of supplying around 60% of its food consumption. The rest operates on a just-in-time basis, with a stock of generally 3 to 5 days held in reserve. The EU supplies the UK with 30% of its food. UK consumers spend around £201bn annually on food and non-alcoholic beverages, which for the poorest segments of society amounts to approximately 16% of their total expenditure on average. Still reeling from the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, a significant section of society are struggling under austerity, with a record number of food banks now in operation, and 8% of adults reporting that they did not have enough money to feed themselves properly last year. It is clear that, as a society, we are already incredibly vulnerable to any food price shocks.

In the US GM products do not need labelling, poultry is dipped in chlorine disinfectant, beef hormones are used to accelerate animal growth (which pose a risk to pregnant women), and synthetic hormones injected into dairy cattle have been shown to cause the milk to contain higher volumes of pus

Among the regulations implemented by Europe that some leading ‘Brexiteers’ are so keen to put to the torch, are those which have ensured that usage of agrichemicals are controlled, cleaner water is used, and that food quality standards are tough. EU subsidies provide 55% of total UK farm income. Some leading Conservatives maintain that “efficient” farmers shouldn’t require subsidies, but the law of the market dictates that removal of the subsidies will lead to one (or more) of three outcomes; farmers go out of business, food quality standards have to drop, or food prices go up.

Furthermore, the EU has some of the strictest food quality standards in the world, all of which help to ensure that EU consumers know what they are buying, that the food is safe, and it is of the quality it claims to be. Other major food markets, such as the US and China, have markedly laxer quality standards, which allow food of a lower quality, and potentially posing health risks to be produced and sold. For example, in the US GM products do not need labelling, poultry is dipped in chlorine disinfectant, beef hormones are used to accelerate animal growth (which pose a risk to pregnant women), and synthetic hormones injected into dairy cattle have been shown to cause the milk to contain higher volumes of pus. Opening up UK markets to these products would mean that our own domestic produce can be undercut, and again the only outcomes of this would be that domestic farmers go out of business, or the UK reduces food quality standards.

The detail of this was lost in the referendum campaign, and I think highlights why referenda on such complex issues is not the correct way to run government – this is why we elect representatives to research, explore and determine the best course of action on our behalf.

This poses a dual problem – if the UK weakens food quality standards, then UK farms will no longer have access to EU markets, which would mean losing 71.5% of their export market and threatens their viability. If, on the other hand, food quality standards are enforced for UK produce, but not US imports, then the consumer may elect to buy cheaper, poorer quality, American produce over quality British produce. Neither of these bode well for UK farms or UK food security.

The detail of this was lost in the referendum campaign, and I think highlights why referenda on such complex issues is not the correct way to run government – this is why we elect representatives to research, explore and determine the best course of action on our behalf. While the UK Government has committed to maintaining farm subsidies to 2022, and will carry forward all EU legislation in to UK law on EU exit, Parliament will have no control over which of these are dropped for the subsequent two years, and we may find that the UK has sleepwalked into a food security disaster. And you can hardly have your cake and eat it, if you can’t even buy the flour to make it with.


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