As the UK slides unprepared into the great unknown as an independent nation, the essential benefits that gave Brexit merit have yet to emerge from the din of political mud-slinging. With the only comprehensible realities being that there will be no money left to give the NHS and that the majority of qualified workforce comes from the Union we’re seeking a divorce from, the UK is facing an annexation of its own doing, without a paddle.
Trade deals and the customs union have been the most agonised topic, with European Union nations benefitting from no trade tariffs that make it cheap to import and profitable to export. But with the government’s failure to act putting a no-deal Brexit on the looming horizon, the latest post-EU revelation is the risk of sky-rocketing food prices and a massive dip in profit from exported goods that could put the entire agricultural sector in jeopardy. Talk of empty supermarket shelves and stockpiling reserves does little to provide tangible support at this time, and though these scenarios aren’t likely, far worse consequences could become a reality.
The House of Commons made their concerns clear in a report published in February, urging ministers to come up with a clear answer to agricultural interests post-Brexit. In a belated response, Michael Gove promised the Agriculture Bill would be published before the end of July. But true to this governments tardy manner, they are late to the mark. With just seven months to go until the UK’s exit date, the outcomes of the divorce seem even less clear than they were two years ago, with the prospect of any deal further away than ever. Policymakers, businesses and the public are becoming increasingly unsure as to what future the UK is heading into, and how to prepare for an unestablished goal that is coming up fast.
The UK’s dependence on imported produce puts the slow pace of negotiations into terrifying clarity. While much of the focus has been on services, finance, and defence, a no deal scenario could put our most fundamental necessity, food, at risk. A third of all food consumed in the UK comes from the EU, which has increased over the more than 40 years we have been a member. Our reliance on food from abroad has made it harder for the UK to become self-sufficient, with scientists predicting that by the mid-2040s, the country will only be able to produce enough food to feed 53% of its population. Without the comfort of a few decades to secure our food supplies, the looming deadline could prove disastrous for our food industry.
The government’s intention is for an inclusive free trade and customs agreement with the EU that will allow it to enjoy the benefits it has had for the last several decades as a member; to function as a single trading area without tariffs, restrictions or border checks. But without paying the entry fee and accepting the other agreements like free movement, the UK is trying to secure a ride without paying the toll fee. Such an ambitious hope makes it more likely that the UK will crash out of Europe without a deal and will be forced to trade under the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) playbook. With far higher tariffs on agricultural products than any other goods or services in the interest of protecting domestic markets, WTO tariffs will force the UK into an expensive cycle of import and export fees that will be detrimental to businesses.
With the EU being the UK’s primary export, post-Brexit goods sent to the continent will be at the liberty of import charges. Tariffs could be as high as 87% for beef, 46% for cheese and 21% for tomatoes, with some individual products over 100%, making producers in these UK industries massively unprofitable. Such high costs will be too much for individual farmers and producers who will be forced only to sell domestically or simply stop producing, putting the agricultural sector into a downward spiral. Areas dependant on the export of agrarian products to Europe could face massive economic downturns, with the Welsh lamb industry’s 85% exports by volume going to the continent, and Northern Irelands exports dropping by 90%. The cereal and grain industry, with 80% of exports going to EU markets will be most affected, as they enter an exporting market with producers like Russia, Ukraine, the US and South America who are established and huge producers that the UK’s small industry cannot compete with.
To stay competitive and protect its own economy, the UK will be forced to decide whether to maintain high tariff levels or lower them, both scenarios offering critical consequences to the agricultural industry. High tariffs on imports would put higher costs on importers, leading to higher prices on the shop floor for the British public. The British Retail Consortium applied the WTO’s current tariffs to everyday products and showed that beef and cheese prices increases by a third, tomatoes by 20% and broccoli by 10%. Expensive imports could support domestic growers by pushing the public to buy more local to save on shopping budgets, but the price difference will take time, and without clarity from the government about guidelines into the post-Brexit future, producers are unprepared for how to invest in this domestic sector. Alternatively, low tariffs would lower the cost of imported goods, leading to reduced prices for UK consumers, but without the level of security of supply and demand from the established markets of the EU. A liberalisation of tariffs could cause irreversible long-term damage to the agricultural sector in the UK, affecting the economic viability of many British farms. Producer prices for meat, poultry and dairy could drop by half as they come under increasing competition from global exporters. Such a move could put many UK farmers out of business, which would be detrimental to the rural economy, and render the nation dependent on food imports.
The removal of tariffs would result in the UK market being flooded with imports produced to lower welfare, environmental and health standards. Talk of swapping membership in the EU for a seat at the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) highlights the concerns, as members, namely America have significantly lower food standards than the UK. Higher levels of pesticides, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), growth hormones, animal cloning and cultured meat, along with the high profile examples of hormone-treated beef and chlorinated chicken could all end up on British supermarkets under such a trade agreement. The UK’s international reputation for high animal welfare, environmental and food standards could be compromised by a NAFTA trade agreement, encouraging the UK to sacrifice our renowned standards in favour of cheap imports, making it difficult to maintain trade, establish new markets, and preserve our reputation that is dwindling everywhere else.
Even if the UK maintained the same high regulatory standards that itself and EU have set for agriculture, this does not mean UK exports can easily enter European nations. As a “third country” the UK will be subjected to strict customs checks and controls at the first point of entry, which will massively impact the quick flow of trade that is essential for fresh produce. Animal products will be held to stringent checks at each stage of export, from registering, licensing, granting veterinary certificates, notifying, approval and submitting the goods. It is estimated that the volume of exported animal products will require an increase of over 300% veterinary certifications, of which over 95% of veterinarians qualified to sign such certificates come from foreign nations. Any consignment of animal products from third countries to the EU may only enter at a designated border inspection post (BIP). Of such ports, just a few lie on the northern EU border nearest to Britain. Current border inspection posts are not capable of dealing with additional checks required from imports and exports to and from the EU. Delays at border inspection posts lead to increased costs and are a threat to perishable goods.
The UK’s looming departure from the European Union is revealing itself from the confusion of Chequers as an assault on our food security, trust, and quality, amongst all the other sectors that are at its whim. As we slide headfirst into the unknown, it may just become a question of what’s more important; only sharing our space with British descendants, who are uniquely unqualified to deal with the problems we face in a post-Brexit nation, or securing the future of our agricultural industry and having access to a healthy, fresh, and affordable food?