The announcement last month by the Port of Dover that the government was imperilling the UK’s food safety by insisting that import checks be conducted at a facility 22 miles inland rather than at point of entry, when physical inspections begin in April, could be dismissed as just another skirmish in the battle to implement a flawed Brexit. In reality, it’s part of a much bigger challenge to the UK’s post-Brexit food security – one which many in the sector believe will result in the first domestic crisis of a coming Starmer premiership: major food shortages and empty supermarket shelves.
At the heart of the issue, for a country that imports more than 45% of its food after exports, are post-Brexit border checks, recently introduced after five delays. The EU has been checking British exports for safety and standards for three years. This has already had an impact on trade. While Brexit cheerleaders like to celebrate robust export figures to the EU, those are led by gas and whisky. UK beef and pork exports were already down by more than 20%. According to figures from the Food and Drink Federation, the same is now being seen with imports, with apples down by 16.8% and oranges down by 18.2%.
The impact on meat products is expected to be even worse due to a shortage of the European vets required to check consignments. According to Marco Forgione, director general of the Institute of Export and International Trade, the confused way in which the border checks have been introduced seriously risks limiting food supplies. “Many EU businesses may decide it’s just too hard to trade with the UK because of both the costs and uncertainty and go elsewhere,” he said.
It’s an issue echoed by hauliers. Last week, trucks were taking 35 hours to get from Rotterdam to Harwich instead of 24 hours. From Dunkirk to Dover, it was 17 hours instead of seven. The delays add to costs for lorry drivers who can’t then guarantee to be in place to collect consignments for return. Andy Topham has been a haulier for 35 years and is now based in southern Spain. “Like a lot of European-based hauliers, I swerve UK work,” he says. “Going to the UK is just endless paperwork with too many chances for things going wrong. It doesn’t stack up.”
Brexit supporters argue that reduced imports can only be good news for UK farmers because they will see increased demand for their products. However, a combination of ill-thought-out government farm subsidies and brutal price gouging by supermarkets desperate to tackle food price inflation, is quietly destroying the UK’s farming sector. According to Liz Webster, a Cotswold farmer and founder of the campaign group Save British Farming, EU farmers have been offering lower prices than those in the UK because they’ve had fewer labour issues and continue to get EU subsidies. “UK pig farmers have been particularly crushed on price over the past three years by supermarkets and are simply quitting the business.”
The figures bear this out. Last year, UK pork production was down 11%. The same applies to the apple business. James Smith of Loddington Farm in Kent used to supply 2,000 tonnes to the supermarkets. He now produces 400 tonnes a year, little of which goes to supermarkets. “The retailers will not pay us a profitable price for the product,” he says. “It’s no longer worth growing a crop.”
This weekend, in an echo of recent demonstrations by farmers across the EU, their British counterparts brought convoys of tractors to Dover to protest against the way the supermarkets were using those cheaper food imports as an excuse for paying less than the cost of production for domestic produce. There were also farmer-led protests in Carmarthen, Wales.
Meanwhile, the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), a programme of grants for environmental actions on farms phased in by Defra since 2021, has been accused of undermining farming. “It’s not about making food production more sustainable,” one farmer says. “It’s about taking land out of food production to realise environmental goals.” Wheat farmers are now at risk of losing at least £450 per hectare, whereas under SFI they can be paid a guaranteed £453 per hectare to plant wildflowers.
“Many farmers are responding to the SFI by reducing food production,” says Webster. She argues that it’s the product of a chronic failure of government policy. “Because we’ve done so well historically importing food, production has never been prioritised,” she says. “We’re now in a really serious situation. Other countries have many far less complicated places to trade with, where they’ll get a good price, while our food production is collapsing.” Many in the sector believe the UK’s overall food self-sufficiency has slipped well below the 61% it was measured at in 2022.
A spokesperson for Defra denied that the SFI is undermining food production. “We are backing British farmers, using our schemes to pay them to take actions which boost food production and nature alike. There is no evidence that farmers are taking significant amounts of land out of production to enter it into the SFI.”
However, at last week’s Norfolk Farming Conference a government minister suggested they might have to cap the SFI if food production slumped as a result. Farming minister Mark Spencer was responding to a question from an audience member who said there had already been a “wholesale shift” from food production to taking SFI grants.
Last year, Labour promised a new deal for farmers, including a commitment to source all food for the public sector from the UK. Webster dismisses this as “thin gruel”, based on vague promises. “Labour needs to wake up and look at what’s going on because no government can survive a genuine food crisis.”
Days before the UK’s food checks were finally introduced on 31 January, Defra suddenly announced that full checks on fruit and vegetables would be delayed at least until October. Many suspect this was an attempt to kick the risk of shortages down the road, so it became a problem for an incoming Labour government. The warnings on post-Brexit food safety from the Port of Dover are stark enough. But they pale against the threat of the UK not being able to source all the food it needs to keep its population fed.