What would happen to British food and agriculture if we leave the EU?

The date of the referendum over whether Britain should stay or leave the EU has been set for June. For more general information, here’s a BBC article about the pros and cons of the decision, reflecting on trade, jobs, immigration etc. YouGov has provided a summary of the polls so far – one result is that the under-30s demographic are mostly pro-membership but also traditionally least likely to vote at all.

The aim of this article is to talk a bit more about what will happen to food and agriculture if we leave the EU. So, why am I creating a segue between being under 30 and food and agriculture?

Honestly, we – the millennials – are obsessed with food. Social media, technology, increasing ease of travel, the rise of ‘foodies’, and more ‘promiscuous consumerism’ that focuses on provenance, health and organics: All these factors cause under 30s to be an incredibly powerful eating group, with food industries starting to shape their business habits around this demographic.

Eve Turrow, author of A Taste of Generation Yum: How the Millennial Generation’s Love for Organic Fare, Celebrity Chefs, and Microbrews Will Make or Break the Future of Food, states:

“Now, undergraduate and graduate programs are proliferating across the country and across the world. To me, it’s exciting that people aren’t just eating and talking about their meals, but thinking critically about food policy, food distribution, food equality, food deserts, all that stuff.” (Interview in The Atlantic, 2015)

The rise of the Millennials: intellectually, technologically and gastronomically stimulated? (Source: foodfanatics.usfoods.com)

So, if we really are obsessed with food, we should all be asking the question of how our food and agriculture should change if we left the EU, rather than just taking photos of our kale salads. Right?

Good, glad we are all on the same page.

I decided to do a bit of research as there doesn’t seem to be much chat about food and agriculture in this whole Brexit debate. Here goes:

We depend heavily on the EU for food and agricultural products 

54% of the UK’s food is produced domestically, 27% comes from other EU countries, and 19% from the rest of the world. The EU accounts for 62% of UK exports and 72% of UK imports of food/agricultural products (2013 figures).

Basically, the UK’s food and agricultural sector is much more dependent on the EU than it is on us.

With such dependence, farming livelihoods (and our food prices) would be impacted. 

Britain would no longer be part of the the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy influencing agricultural production, subsidies and regulation with the EU. This could be a good thing, especially with the destructive impact of CAP subsidies on our food and environmental systems, however, would Britain provide enough support to its farmers to compensate for their loss of support within CAP?

Farmers incomes would be reduced. EU funding helps to keep small farms afloat, especially when up against massive monopolies and big agribusiness. Without these, the farming sector would become a ‘race to the bottom‘. We would also cut ourselves off from the EU talent pool of skilled agricultural workers. At present, our UK agricultural sector  includes over 34,000 employees from outside the UK. We depend on migrant labour to sustain domestic production.

Rolling fields in the UK – the image of our domestic farming system (Source: farmers-mart.co.uk)

Food prices will rise. 

A more volatile and uncertain market will emerge, impacted by cuts in labour, fewer available imports (but our UK food and agricultural products must still conform with EU standards and regulations), and the costs of border controls and import duties. We may start trading within The European Economic Area, like Norway, or as part of the World Trade Organisation. However, unlike Norway, we don’t have a government that supports strong welfare, capacity and sustainable agricultural policies.

Whatever we decide, food prices will go up, in the short term at least. And, without adequate welfare and distributional measures in place, arguably the poorest will be impacted the most.

On the bright side, we would no longer be part of TTIP (yay!) 

This is a good thing, a very very good thing.

TTIP is a trade deal that has been going on relatively secretly between the EU and US for the past year or so. The deal allows for free trade of foods and agricultural products between the two.

The potential impacts of TTIP on the future of Europe’s food are explained in this fantastic Vice article. If Britain leaves the EU, the US have warned that we will face ‘trade barriers’. Big talk there.

TTIP: Shaking up the EU (Source: eumonitr.com)

For those of you that lust after Lucky Charms, free trade between the US and EU might sound fantastic. However, in dreams of future sugar rushes, we forget that the worst thing about TTIP is that it will be eroding the power that policies protecting food diversity have in the EU.

One of these is the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) and its EU Protected Food Name scheme. The Protected Food Name scheme guarantees that what you are eating is ‘regionally authentic’. This isn’t just a good thing for consumers but also for diversity in our food system in general; it allows for regional producers and suppliers to have protection and prominence, and it continues to nurture the ecosystems and food cultures from which these speciality and traditional foods evolve from.

So, without TTIP, we would protect food diversity, right?

No, as we would still lose out on the EU Protected Food Name Scheme

By leaving the EU and the support of the Protected Food Name scheme, our indigenous dishes would be under threat. The value of Cumberland still resides with the Cumberland sausage, the Cornish Pasty still conjures images of rolling hills and coastal paths in Cornwall, but instead they could now be mass produced in some warehouse.

Also, will we really be not impacted by free trade agreements with the US? 

What about other forms of trade, such as pesticides, growth hormones, GMOs, and other agricultural practices currently employed in the US? An Independent article states that even if we are not part of TTIP, our current governments love for deregulation of food and agriculture would probably mean that we create our own version anyway. The article concludes that there will still be pressure from the US; simply because we leave a transatlantic trade deal, doesn’t mean there aren’t still power relations and chats behind closed doors.

Toxic trade – still continuing between US and UK? (Source: active8health.net)

Going back to leaving the EU Common Agricultural Policy, the above regulatory and trade influence of the US is a daunting impact when thinking of Britain deciding new regulations around welfare and labour, biodiversity and environmental protection and so on.

Overall, while this research base is by no means complete, it suggests a few things: 

  • Leaving the EU would have drastic impacts on our food production, trade and pricing.
  • Without adequate capacity and welfare support, the potential benefits of leaving TTIP and the EU CAP will remain at higher levels, rather than being reaped by small farms and poorest groups in society.
  • Diversity could still be threatened – including food diversity but also diversity of skills (esp. from migrant labour).

With this information in mind, let’s think critically – about food, tastes, agriculture, diversity, trade – and use our power as a voter and an eater in 23 days time.

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