Brexit is once again back at the top of the news agenda. While the UK and European countries continue to battle coronavirus, the spectre of no trade deal being signed now looms large with the transition period ending on 31 December 2020. If no agreement is reached, it’ll have huge consequences on both sides of the negotiating table. The UK food production sector is just one of the sectors bracing itself for the potential fall-out of a no-deal scenario.
From the cost of food to employment issues across the sector, Brexit – in any form – provides food producers with numerous challenges to overcome. And the news that France has shut its borders to UK hauliers to stop the spread of to a new, more contagious strain of coronavirus is offering no relief in the short-term. But it’s the longer-term impact of Brexit that the UK sector is most concerned by. So, what does 2021 and beyond hold in store for food production?
The impact of Brexit on food production in the UK
Two of the main concerns in the immediate aftermath of a no-deal Brexit are food security and prices. And, when it comes to the cost of food, supermarkets already warn of higher prices.
Tesco chairman John Allan told Bloomberg that new tariffs will inevitably drive prices higher on certain products: “If we leave on a no-deal basis, there will be tariffs and [they] can be quite substantial on some food items. Those are almost inevitably going to lead to higher prices.”
Meanwhile, the government is committing itself to regular assessments of UK food security. At the same time, it plans to use a new National Food Strategy “to capitalise on the opportunities this can provide for the UK’s farmers and food producers”.
New immigration laws that come into effect from the start of 2021 will also play their part. The ability of producers to attract enough workers for the harvest season is already being doubted.
Maintaining safety standards in UK food production
One other area of concern for some within the sector is whether the UK remains committed to upholding current safety standards. While covered until now under EU law, it’s unclear to what extent the UK government will either replace this area of the law or make it one of the EU laws to be retained. Without greater clarity, this could well affect the entire food supply chain.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) insists its number one aim post-Brexit is to ensure that UK food is safe. It aims to provide consumers with the confidence they seek with regards to food safety and regulatory protection. And yet there remain lingering fears the government will be willing to compromise on standards to attract high-profile, high-value external trade deals.
How is the future of the UK food sector shaping up?
In terms of the UK’s trading relationship with the EU and the rest of the world, it’d be unduly pessimistic to suggest there aren’t opportunities over time. But trade deals can take time to negotiate and sign, which makes it one of the longer-term aspirations for UK food producers.
There are, however, some short term trends that could offer a glimpse into the future of food production in the UK. The plant-based market, for example, has grown healthily in 2020 even with the impact of coronavirus. Unilever is one big name within the sector that recently set its sights on ambitious sales targets for its plant-based meat and dairy alternatives.
In addition, efforts to meet green targets means more food for thought in the supply chain.
The UK government has already banned some single-use plastics. But the industry can expect yet stricter measures to come to effect in future. A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesperson explained: “We will also transform the waste system to move us closer to a circular economy where products are built to last, be recycled or repaired.”
The post-Brexit landscape for the food production sector is dotted with opportunities to thrive. But the short-term risks and ramifications mean the sector could easily become overwhelmed without the clarity and support needed. This is especially the case if politicians fail to reach an agreement and put barriers up to one of the UK’s biggest trading partners now and in future.