The report published today by the University of Leeds – what role should UK producers have in feeding the UK? – is a timely reminder of how geopolitics significantly impacts food security.
Commissioned by Morrisons the supermarket, it’s also a powerful reminder of the role food retailers can play in leading important debates on consumer issues. For many Brits the weekly trip to the supermarket is their biggest interaction with a hugely important UK industry that has doubled its exports in ten years (currently valued at £12.8bn) and is our biggest manufacturing industry.
That’s not to say the British food consumer is by any means oblivious to the importance of this home grown industry. As the report finds, 67% of consumers indicated they’d prefer to buy British over imported food. A positive sign when you consider that in a post-Brexit scenario the price of imported goods could increase if the ability to freely trade products is restricted. But the opposite could also be true post-Brexit – if British farmers are no longer subsidised under the Common Agricultural Policy prices could rise.
There are many reasons why globalisation should be seen as a force for good for the food and drink industry. For the UK it makes total sense to grow the products we can and import the products we can’t. At present, the UK imports £39bn of food against £18bn of exports . In particular, the UK relies heavily on imports of fruit and vegetables – which we generally can’t grow or can only grow at certain times of year.
It’s no surprise that globalisation and the successful trading of goods only works well when political relationships are functioning successfully. Over the last few months alone, between a vote for Brexit and Trump’s election, the political status quo has been smashed. In turn, there’s a significant risk that we will enter a less open and more protectionist trading environment that won’t necessarily favour a UK heavily reliant on imports.
It should be recognised that many farmers that voted to leave the EU take the view that trade would not be hampered by Brexit because the demand for products such as Scotch beef or Welsh lamb would continue regardless. In addition, many farmers think that being released from the shackles of Brussels red tape will mean they can respond directly to consumer demand, growing crops that are actually profitable, not falsely profitable because of subsidies.
In essence, what the report tells us is that if we continue to be so heavily reliant on imports we leave ourselves open to geopolitical risks. In order to protect ourselves, we should seek greater sustainability and self-sufficiency from our own home market. Morrisons is leading by example, timed with its report, by announcing that it intends to recruit two hundred new British suppliers.
Growing our local production in the UK and supporting this burgeoning home grown industry seems a no-brainer, but cost and consumer habits are significant drivers. Choosing British produce is not always the cheapest option and providing for national obsessions with foods such as avocados doesn’t seem sustainable.
One way or another it is highly likely Brexit will impact the price of food and this impact will be felt most acutely by low income households. It’s critical that food retailers take the initiative and help improve consumers’ awareness with whom they have the chance for regular, direct interaction. Let’s hope that other food retailers support this thinking and blaze a trail for British consumers.