The idea of Brexit has been pushed aside in these times of Covid-19, but the importance of living more self-sufficiently and relying less on foreign imports has never been more relevant. Here, Melissa Blease talks to food specialists about the impact of Brexit on the food industry, and their ideas on why local, seasonable produce is not merely a health choice

For decades, the shopping in our baskets and larders has represented the food world equivalent of the Eurovision Song Contest, the Six Nations and the Academy Awards all sitting down together for supper – and our menus reflect the international theme. We blithely scoff strawberries in December, for example, largely imported from Spain, Egypt, Morocco and Israel. Nearly all the decent pasta that we eat is imported from Italy (if you’ve ever tried growing durum wheat in the UK, you’ll understand why). We dive into Icelandic cod on a regular basis, Norwegian salmon makes a splash on menus across the land, and tonnes of tuna makes its way across the oceans from Mauritius and the Seychelles. Even British salad leaves take a bruising in the colder months; the British Leafy Salads Association says that 90 per cent of the salad leaves we eat in winter come from a single region of Spain. But with Brexit now underway, we can no longer take our food supply for granted.

According to Chris Elliott – founder of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University, Belfast – the UK imports about 40% of all the food we eat, with around a third of it coming from EU member states. “The UK imported more than £370 million worth of potatoes from the Netherlands and Belgium in the first six months of 2018 and, in the first nine months of last year, 94 per cent of beef imports into the UK came from EU member states, three- quarters of it from Ireland alone,” he says. Meanwhile, according to a report commissioned by dairy giant Arla and published by the London School of Economics towards the end of last year, “the UK imports nearly all the yogurt it eats, largely from mainland Europe”, while the Republic of Ireland produces nearly 10 billion litres of milk a year, the majority of which goes into the British market. Meanwhile, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that the future of food prices will remain ‘highly uncertain’ until solid trade negotiations are made, and the British Retail Consortium has stated that the absence of a trade deal between the UK and the European Union could see the price of imported food rise by 22% over the coming year.

Help, we need expert advice! And food for thought…

VICKI MOWAT, Riverford Home Delivery Bath

The UK currently only supplies 61% of its own food, while 70% of imported food comes from EU countries; the decisions made around tariffs, quality standards and other issues after Brexit will have a big impact on us all.

At Riverford, we employ lots of brilliant workers from the EU, and the availability of future labour is a huge area of concern for the entire fruit and vegetable industry. We were very disappointed to see the government’s recent points-based immigration system announcement that seems to have ignored how vital migrant workers are to the agricultural sector. We’re providing full support to all of our European workers in order for them to be able to return next year to pick for us, and we’re better able to attract British nationals as we pay above-average wages. We’re confident in being able to weather any storms and keep the Riverford veg boxes fully supplied, but we’re worried about the impact on growers who are smaller than us and less able to navigate this tricky issue.

Given the uncertainty, now is the time to align our diets to incorporate more and more British seasonal food, looking forward to new produce becoming available as the seasons evolve rather than worrying about what we can’t get. Riverford already does this, so we’re a handy shortcut!

Customers can select UK produce, and we even have a 100% UK veg box. When we do import (always by land/sea freight), we do so from grower-partners with whom we have long-term, solid relationships so we’re well protected against supply disruption, and confident that we’ll be able to work around any obstacles to keep our organic boxes filled.

NEIL MORTIMER, Lovejoys Wholesale

As specialists in local and UK produce, we’re working with our chefs to compose menus that place more emphasis on seasonal produce, keeping costs down and promoting all of the local produce available. The UK food business is important to countries in the EU, and vice versa: Holland and Belgium supply the majority of frozen chips; France and Spain send huge supplies of tomatoes and other salad crops, especially in the winter. If a trade deal agreement is settled quickly, then food supplies will go on as normal; if not, the worst scenario is cost increases and lengthy customs delays. It’s hoped that worst-case scenarios will be temporary. We will work hard to keep supplies as normal as possible to our customers throughout the negotiation period, and we’re hopeful that our experience and long-standing supplier relationships will sustain us.

PED ASGARIAN, managing director of the Community Farm, Chew Magna

If managed properly, Brexit could be a big positive for UK farming. If mismanaged, it could destroy what little soul is left of our long-standing agricultural heritage.

Post-Brexit, the landscape of UK farming will undergo significant changes. Different variables will have a big impact on what we farm, how we farm, and the survival of farms, from small scale to large. Many of these factors will be interwoven in ways that are not perhaps obvious to those without experience and knowledge of the history of how trade with Europe, and how the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) have influenced the crops we grow and how we grow them.

We face a mixture of threats and opportunities, and we won’t know the full picture until the ink has dried on trade deals and we’ve decided how the CAP and Countryside Stewardship Schemes will be replaced. Environmental Land Management Schemes, for example – designed around the concept of public money for public goods – have been proposed as replacements; they would encourage a significant move toward looking after soil, creating wildlife corridors and a raft of other positive changes that would benefit those aiming to grow agro-ecologically. However, such changes will only happen gradually due to farmers being locked in to current schemes for up to the next 8–10 years, so this will slow down positive environmental impact.

If we choose to impose higher environmental and health standards on our farming, we will see prices rise. Making trade deals that allow cheaper food to enter the country and/or food that is produced to lower standards could therefore undermine any proposed changes and put farms at risk of struggling to make ends meet. It’s important that trade is matched to our standards; this will allow us to create a fertile environment in which our farming industry can grow.

Small-scale, agro-ecological farming needs to be at the heart of our farming system, for the protection and betterment of the environment and for the improvement of rural and local economies. Research has shown that infrastructure, employment prospects and education are often increased in rural communities with a prevalence of small-scale farming. Such communities’ food supplies are less likely to be affected by adverse weather conditions or disease due to their shorter supply chains, thus boosting their resilience.

VALENTINE WARNER, food writer/chef

The overall problem is that we all eat too much: if we all ate a fraction of what we eat, all that we need, things would be very different. But we live in an age where people think they have the right to have what they want, and that’s where all kinds of problems started well before Brexit. I like companies such as Riverford because, to some degree, they’re deciding how much you eat over a week, and the people who have decided that they want that kind of rationale are using a form of rationing.

If everybody behaved like that instead of randomly buying lots of food, we’d be in a better place. A lot of the mess we’re in can be sorted out locally, but there are all sorts of things to think about, not only over the coming year but the next 20, 40 years – we all have to start looking at what we’ve got and how much we can have.

PETER MILTON, Larkhall Butchers

There’s likely to be an initial period of confusion post-Brexit trade deals, with a fall in imported food putting stress on our local supply chain. This concern will play heavily with prices, but shouldn’t limit the availability of food. At Larkhall Butchers we’re in a relatively stable position; our strong ties to local farmers mean that we actually have nearly 12 months of stock in the fields at any given time – as farmers have to work so far ahead, planning is essential, but this clearly benefits all of us. A more pressing concern is that many of the workers involved in processing our food are European, and new restrictions may limit their availability, particularly around Christmas – this may increase costs at the process and production stages of any food sold.

I would hope that, after a brief period of uncertainty, the demand for local produce across all industries would force us to increase the supply chain to match, with more local jobs being created and hopefully a resurgence in both interest and investment into domestic farms.

One thing highlighted by the current Covid-19 crisis is that increased globalisation carries its own risks, with a dependency on foreign imports impairing our abilities as a nation to isolate ourselves when necessary. It also reduces our ability to be self-sufficient. We certainly live in interesting times! I’ll be fascinated to see how it all pans out, whether our primary and secondary industries will actually increase, or whether we’ll just shift imports to new trade deals. Either way, the show must go on!

ROB CLAYTON, chef/proprietor of Clayton’s Kitchen

Brexit is everywhere. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what would happen in a deal/no-deal. Depending on who you listen to, it’s either a nightmare, or the best thing to happen. One thing we can agree on is that whatever the Brexit deal, some food prices will rise. But which foods will cost more? According to the British Retail Consortium, the price of beef could rise between 5% and 29%, poultry could rise by as much as 25%, and fruit and vegetables will be affected too; the UK Trade Policy Observatory suggests that tomato prices could rise by up to 18%. Whichever restaurant, catering or hospitality news source you trust, the picture doesn’t look rosy.

Perhaps there’s another side to the story. What if we stopped importing so much food and focused on buying local, seasonal produce? Could the food we cook be fresher, healthier and support local producers? We don’t know the answers, but there’s an increasing trend for chefs and catering professionals to put more local produce on their menus.

A couple of decades ago, menus used to be based around local produce. Today, access to even the most unlikely foodstuffs is easy: pineapples in December, avocados in February. Perhaps my industry needs think about whether we need these ingredients on our menus at these times? Building menus around seasonal availability supports local farmers, and it’s better for the planet too. And with restrictions comes creativity; shipping avocados in the middle of winter sounds ridiculous when you think about it for more than a few seconds. Fresh, seasonal, local produce is the way forward.