Port of Felixstowe

Source: Port of Felixstowe 

The ONS warned the ‘volatile’ data shown in its latest stats were due to Brexit, the pandemic and the global supply chain crisis

Government statistics showed the UK’s food and drink exports falling by 2.9% last year compared with 2020 levels, with imports dropping by 5.8% over the period – the first full year of post-Brexit rules covering trade with the EU.

Measured against 2018 – before the pandemic restrictions that severely disrupted many business sectors in 2020 – the UK’s total global food and drink exports were down 6.4%, with imports seeing a 2.1% decline, according to data provided by the ONS (which covered categories including food and live animals, beverages and animal/vegetable oils).

While 2021 saw imports of animal feed, oilseeds and vegetable oils increase, those of meat and dairy were down by around 10% on 2020 levels and by 14% compared with 2018. Meanwhile, vegetables and fruit saw smaller declines of around 10% weighed against 2020 and by 6% versus 2018.

UK exports of dairy and meat as well as fruit & veg in 2021 saw significant declines against both 2020 and 2018, the data showed. And while exports of meat were 3.5% lower last year compared to 2018, the fall from 2020 to 2021 – as the UK began exporting meat under post-Brexit rules – was over 13%.

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Dairy, fruit and vegetable exports registered similar declines last year weighed against 2020 and 2018. Exports of dairy goods, including eggs, were 10.3% lower last year compared with 2020 and 12.4% lower compared with 2018. Fruit and veg exports were down by around 30% in 2021 compared to both 2020 and 2018.

It comes as the ONS last week said the UK’s annual overall goods imports and exports in 2021 had “increased by 8.4% and 4.9% respectively compared with 2020”, when most major economies reported severe pandemic-driven recessions. But overall, the UK’s goods exports were down by over 10% last year compared to 2018, with imports seeing a fall of around 5%.

The ONS said the “higher levels of volatility” in trade statistics were down to the UK leaving the EU, as well as factors such as “the impact of the pandemic, global recession and supply chain disruption”.

All the same, the UK’s departure from the EU have caused significant shifts in trade, with European Commission data for last year published in January, showing overall goods imports from the UK falling by 13.5% compared to 2020.

While the UK’s food-related trade with the EU had by late last year climbed back close to pre-Brexit monthly levels, EC data showed British exports of food, drink and tobacco to the EU fell from just over €15.7bn (£13.2bn) in 2020 to around €12bn (£10.1bn) last year. In 2018, the UK sold around €16.6bn (£13.9bn) worth of the same range of goods in the EU.

The UK’s food, drink and tobacco imports from the EU fell slightly last year to €37.9bn (£31.2bn) from just over €39bn (£32.7bn) in 2020, with overall goods imports from the EU up almost 2% for the year, the EC data showed.

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The UK did not start checking imports from the EU until this year, although controls on goods going the other way have been in place since the start of 2021, including on food crossing the Irish Sea and North Channel to Northern Ireland and EU member state Ireland.

Data published on Tuesday by the Central Statistics Office in Dublin showed Irish imports from Great Britain fell by 13% last year to €2.3bn (£1.9bn), while exports to Great Britain rose 14% year on year compared to 2020, a year marred by pandemic lockdowns.

At the same time, trade on the island of Ireland  jumped by €2.8bn (£2.3bn) in 2021 compared to the year before, with the Republic’s imports from Northern Ireland surging by 65% and exports by around 50%. Food, chemicals and fuel were the main contributors to the rises, going by the CSO’s numbers. 

In December, the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin listed “food and beverages” as “key” to what preliminary data suggested had been a “considerable increase” in trade across the island in the early part of 2021.