15 August 2017

Brexit and the UK food system: many issues and one opportunity

The decision of the UK to leave the European Union (EU) raises huge food-related issues that had not been put on the table at time of the referendum campaign. But now that negotiations on Brexit start, the British have to face the hard side of reality and forget the illusory promises made during the campaign by the pro-Brexit political leaders.

Forty-four years after joining the EU, the UK realises the high level of interrelation and mutual dependency it developed with fellow EU member countries and the difficulty it will face in cutting off the links it has built over almost five decades and in reestablishing all the instruments required to achieve a reliable, sustainable and secure food system. In several domains that are critical for managing adequately the food system, the UK has developed dramatic weaknesses:

  1. Institutional:

  2. Food legislation: if the EU food legislation is not simply kept to become the national legislation, the UK will have to design new laws. This will take time and carries risks of lower food standards (those operating at the international level) and of lower protection for consumers and their health, as well as of the environment;

  3. Food standard institutions: the UK relies on EU institutions for food standards and national food standard institutions are understaffed, underfunded and have become very weak. They will need to be strengthened for providing adequate protection for consumers.

  1. Economic:

  2. Over the last decades, UK food production has decreased and the result has been a growing dependency of the country on imports from the rest of the EU, particularly for fruits and vegetables which are vital for health;

  3. The UK food system relies heavily on migrant labour whose numbers could be cut considerably, depending on the result of Brexit negotiations, thus creating a major issue in the future, with implications on cost of production of local food and food prices paid by consumers.

  1. Strategic:

  2. There is a lack of vision of what the specific goals of the UK food system should be. This is particularly true in England;

  3. It is unclear what level of support will be provided to the food and agricultural sector in the post-Brexit situation. Considering critiques made of the UE Common Agricultural Policy, the odds are in favour of a much reduced level of subsidies, with  high potential impact on food security of the country as a whole and potential dramatic consequences for the poorest sections of the population.

The above points summarize the key conclusions of “A Food Brexit: time to get real - A Brexit Briefing”, paper prepared recently by three prominent British food specialists. They show the high cost and risks involved in Brexit.

However, the good side of the medal is that Brexit could also be an opportunity for the UK to redesign entirely its food system which has shown to be a failure [read].

In their conclusion, the authors formulate several recommendations in this line, among which:

  1. The creation of a new statutory framework for UK food linked to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the 2015 Paris Climate Change agreement;

  2. The setting of new targets for UK food security (food supply, quality, health and consumption) which go beyond mere quantity of supply by addressing ecosystems and social systems resilience;

  3. The development of an approach to food policy which is politically open and socially inclusive.

The UK is on a knife-edge: either Brexit will lead to an improved, a more sustainable, fairer and more inclusive food system, or it will generate a more unequal food system that will offer less protection to consumers’ health, exploit the environment and produce a degraded social justice.

The ball is the UK Government’s camp.


To know more:

  1. Lang, T., E. Millstone and T. Marsden, A Food Brexit: time to get real - A Brexit Briefing, University of London, University of Sussex, Science Policy Research Unit and Cardiff University, 2017.

  2. MacMillan, A. and P. Beeden, The UK should seize the Brexit moment to reform its food policies (and become a role model for other countries).pdf, 29 (2016).

Earlier articles on related to the topic:

  1. United Kingdom: a study demonstrates the failure of the British food system, 2014

  2. MacMillan, A., Hasn’t the time come for some brave new thinking on food management? 2014.

Last update:    August 2017

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