Food security in the UK – is it at risk?

White Cliffs, Dover, Kent

John Giles, Divisional Director of Promar International’s agri-food team, argues that postponing border checks on imports does nothing to enhance our food security.

At the end of April 2022, the UK government announced a further postponement of checks on imports from the EU, which are required under post-Brexit trade rules. No introduction of checks is now planned until the end of 2023.

The government blamed its decision on the disruption caused by the war in Ukraine and fast-rising food inflation. It made no mention of the UK leaving the EU, which was the reason for the checks in the first place.

A recent London School of Economics blog included Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic as contributing factors to the problem. “These two events have affected the flow of materials and inputs (domestic and imported), as well as energy and labour,” it said.

To what extent each factor has contributed to the problem is a matter for analysis. The fact is though, retail food prices are rising sharply, and will continue going up for the foreseeable future.

Not all import checks scrapped

Controls that will no longer be introduced for EU goods from July include phytosanitary checks at the border and requirements for safety and security declarations on imports. Restrictions on chilled meat imports have also been scrapped.

Controls introduced last year on the highest risk imports of animals, animal products, plants and plant products will continue to apply.

Mixed reactions

Reaction in the UK supply chain has been mixed. The National Farmers Union claims the decision poses a risk to biosecurity, animal health and food safety. Meanwhile, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health says the move could have public health consequences.

However, the announcement has been welcomed by groups, such as the Cold Chain Federation. The British Meat Processors Association has said at least the move brought clarity, but that it was a double-edged sword for businesses. Meanwhile, British port operators have reacted angrily, saying they had already built border control posts.

Open for business – or trouble?

Many critics point to the fact that the lack of checks brings an increased risk of serious food fraud. In a worst-case example, food of unknown origin and questionable quality might be waved through at British ports and could potentially end up on supermarket shelves.

The UK government did not acknowledge this scenario in its recent announcement. “The change in approach is expected to save British importers at least £1 billion in annual costs,” it said. The document declined to acknowledge that these costs were caused by Brexit.

Predictable complexities

What this shows is the lack of clarity over what people expected to happen after the UK left the EU. Perhaps it is a classic example of “unintended consequences”. Certainly, few people foresaw the COVID pandemic followed so swiftly by the ramping up of war in Ukraine.

However, those situations were not entirely unforeseeable. You could argue that war has been going on in Ukraine since 2014. Certainly, pandemics are a worryingly regular fact of human history. Wise leaders plan for these sorts of challenges.

What was Brexit for, anyway?

One of the main rationales for Brexit was that it would make the UK more food secure. Supposedly, we would be free from the shackles of the CAP and EU trade policy. Liberated, the country could choose its own directions, and be responsible for its own security.

However, it seems that a combination of Brexit, COVID and now the war in Ukraine, has made us less food secure, and despite the efforts of many across the supply chain, not enough is being done to set out a robust and joined up over-arching food strategy.

More pressing issues than import checks?

Okay, border checks might not be the single most pressing issue for UK farmers and food-processing companies right now. Soaring fertiliser, energy and packaging costs are much more immediately challenging, for sure.

However, imagine the furore and damage of meat from BSE-stricken and FMD-infected herds mistakenly entering the UK. Look around the world at the problems being caused by African swine fever and avian flu.

Unlikely here? Maybe, but COVID happened, and should serve as an illustration that vigilance is required. Postponing border checks does threaten our food security.

Let’s not take our food security for granted any more

The current situation adds to the sense that we don’t seem to have a well-defined and joined-up policy concerning our food. Rather, we appear to be a bit rudderless.

If you are in doubt read Professor Tim Lang’s Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them. Professor Lang picks apart our stance on food security and concludes that, in effect, for many years we haven’t really had one.

He warns, “Everyone says someone else should be doing something when the scale of change requires that everyone act in concert. …it is government which has to facilitate and lead the required process of change. We live, however, in an era of the ‘reluctant state’…”

You may not agree with all that Tim Lang says, but his evidence provides a pretty damning indictment of the wider situation we find ourselves in at the moment.

Let’s talk

If you are trying to pick your way through the current situation and the points I’ve raised above resonate with you, please give me a call, on 07768 553298. As an agri-food strategist, I specialise in learning and advising about markets, supply chains and opportunities, particularly in times of great change.

John Giles is a Divisional Director in the Promar International agri food team and has worked in some 60 countries around the world, including all the major European markets, as well as the length and breadth of the UK. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the University of Reading.