Will we go hungry after Brexit?
By David Godwin
While washing livestock with chlorine might seem like an unusual practice, it is in fact common in the United States. Supermarkets in the UK cannot sell this type of produce, however, as such practices are banned under current EU laws. As The New European’s ‘Are you bleach body ready’ cover highlights, however, leaving the EU means anything is on the cards – which includes chlorine-doused poultry, beef products pumped up with growth hormones and poorly labelled GM products, all of which are common across the US. As we’ve come to expect, any hope of clarity from the UK government is unlikely: environment secretary Michael Gove has said we will not accept chlorine chicken while Liam Fox, one of Brexit’s loudest proponents, has claimed that such items pose no risk to public health and that they should be included in any trade deal the UK might establish with our neighbours across the pond.
The UK imports 80% of its vegetables and 40% of its fruit, so it’s no surprise that Brexit will pose enormous challenges to the country’s food infrastructure. Aside from the comical stories about Toblerone’s smaller packages (the company denied claims Brexit was involved but have suggested that the unfavourable exchange rate – something Brexit is at least partly responsible for – contributed to their decision), industry experts across the UK have already raised fears about how leaving the EU will affect the quality and cost of our food. Whisky distillers in Scotland (a product worth £4 billion to its exports), for example, worry that foreign products may be allowed in the country without adhering to the stringent specifications they currently follow. Companies also worry that any increased bureaucracy with imports and exports could savage their operations: companies like Diageo claim that delays at borders will cost them over £1 million extra a year.
Elsewhere, concerns over who will help harvest the UK’s food mount every day, particularly as the rights of seasonal workers (many of whom are mainland Europeans) remain hazy. UK farms depend on EU nationals to help pick and harvest food supplies. As farmer Marion Regan notes, such workers are essential to the process:
“In common with lots of other horticultural producers – apple growers and salad growers – we all depend on having a really good supply of seasonal labour to help hand-harvest our crops, and we are extremely lucky on this farm to have some fantastic people predominantly from eastern European Union countries who come here for the summer.”
The same is true across the UK. In Scotland, farmer William Houston has publicly stated that losing access to EU workers (which constitute pickers, and skilled researchers and scientists) could be devastating to his business’ financial success. In addition, the Pound’s mediocre performance against the Euro is making it less enticing for Bulgarian and Romanian workers (who represent a large portion of the UK’s seasonal workforce) to travel here. As a result, the crops that demand intensive labour to harvest and distribute (products such as beans, onions, courgettes) may be left unpicked. And since agricultural work is looked down upon by some in the UK, many of whom are unwilling and ill-prepared for all weather work, it is unlikely that EU workers could be replaced. The recent high employment figures further complicate the problem; those who might have done the job before may have found themselves employment that, on the face of it, is more favourable to picking raspberries and pulling up asparagus shoots.
The EU provides more than just seasonal workers. According to Plaid Cymru’s farming spokesman Ben Lake, UK-based farms are also dependent on the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy payments to keep their heads above water: many of them ‘rely on payments for 80% of their income’ so it’s inevitable that the plans for farmers to ‘earn’ their subsidies after 2022 have already been described as ‘economically toxic’.
Businesses are already feeling the pinch before that. Some companies are already planning to scale back their production or move their operations elsewhere while othere, including fruit farmer Southern Salads, have had to close – which should be seen as a portentous moment for what is likely to come.
Every farmer is likely to face challenges as a result of Brexit – from strawberry farms who will struggle to find workers for the Wimbledon season to those who will suffer in silence as they try to scale the mountain of paperwork that will follow what current reports suggest will be a poorly negotiated trade relationship with Europe. After years of consistent food supplies and (more or less) steady prices, consumers can expect rises and crisis-level shortages. Which, even before inflation and stagnant wages are factored in, will contribute to the rising costs associated with living in the UK. Well in advance of thinking about serving up chlorine-washed chicken then, Brexit is already offering up a particularly unappetising plate for producers and consumers alike.