farming analysis

The UK will face “severe” food supply problems after Brexit if the government doesn’t make an urgent plan for food and farming, a major new report has warned.

The study, by leading food policy specialists Professor Erik Millstone of the University of Sussex, Professor Tim Lang of London’s City University and Professor Terry Marsden of Cardiff University, warned the UK was totally unprepared for “the most complex ever change” to its food supply system.

A lack of government vision for the future of food and agriculture meant even a soft Brexit could have huge implications for the price, quality and supply of food in the UK, it claimed.

“Since the Brexit referendum, UK food and agricultural policy has been in chaos. Not only have ministers yet to develop a strategy or make decisions, they have not even grasped the issues about which urgent decisions are needed,” said Professor Millstone.

“Unless things change rapidly, and in line with our recommendations, the UK will not only have policy chaos, the food system itself will become increasingly chaotic.”

With the clock ticking down until Brexit, the government must come up with a “clear integrated plan for UK food”, the report warned, as well as developing new legislation to replace the 4,000 pieces of EU law related to food.

Among other issues that needed to be “urgently” addressed by ministers were how the scientific and regulatory infrastructure provided by 30 EU-based bodies would be replaced, the future of farm subsidies, how tariffs would be set and how food quality standards would be protected post-Brexit, it said.

Making detailed recommendations for each of the 16 issues identified, the report’s authors called on the government to create a new statutory framework for UK food, which includes commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris climate agreement, and to establish a new National Commission on Food and Agriculture to provide oversight.

“At least the UK entered World War Two with emergency plans. No one has warned the public that a Food Brexit carries real risks of disruption to sources, prices and quality. There is solid evidence about vulnerabilities ranging from diet-related ill-health to ecosystems stress,” said Lang.

“Food is the biggest slice of EU-related regulations and laws, yet so far the government has only sketchily flagged a new Agriculture Act and Fisheries Act in the Queen’s Speech.

“The government has provided next to no details on agriculture and fisheries, and there has been total silence on the rest of the food chain where most employment, value adding and consumer choice are made. With the Brexit deadline in 20 months, this is a serious policy failure on an unprecedented scale. Anyone would think they want a drop into the World Trade Organization abyss.”

The 86-page report, published by SPRU, the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, is the first major review of how Brexit could affect UK food and farming.

It draws on more than 200 sources, including interviews with senior figures across the UK food chain, as well as official, industry and scientific documents. It also examines available industry and government data, policies and literature on a wide range of issues including production, farming, employment, quality, safety standards and the environment.