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No Deal Brexit Planning for Food Security 05/12/2018, Info

First, a disclaimer: I’m a staunch remainer because I believe, all things considered, we (UK and EU) would all be far better off (not only in the economic sense) if the UK remained part of the EU. Furthermore, any situation where a government allowed a “no deal” scenario to happen would, in my opinion, forever be seen as a highly damaging act. I sincerely hope No-Deal Brexit never happens. So, it is with some trepidation that I embark on a mission today to advise colleagues at DEFRA with my top 3 recommendations for what to do to prepare the UK for exactly that scenario.

The vast majority of food industry experts are aligned that even the slightest disruption of free movement of goods through our ports will cause significant gaps in supply in a “just in time” food system that is so heavily reliant on imported food. The UK has a multi-billion pound trade deficit when it comes to food and drink. We produce less than 10% off the fruit we eat and 40% of our veg come through our main ports from overseas.

So, what on earth should we do to prepare for such a scenario? We hear in the news that warehouses are full – stock piling food for what I believe to be the worst-case scenario. The reality is that this will likely help for no longer than a few weeks at best in the midst of a major disruption to inbound food supply chains.

Ensuring food security for the 60 million people that live on this island in a No-Deal Brexit scenario requires one key intervention: Put the countryside to work around the major cities in the UK in order to feed urbanites with regionally grown, sustainably farmed produce.

The two questions are: How can we get from where we are today (for most cities in the UK, just 1% of the food we eat is produced within the locality in which it is grown) to where we need to be (approx. 80% self-reliant)? And how long will that take?

For perspective, the last time the UK mobilised quickly to turn a ~50% food security ratio into a situation where we could just about feed ourselves was during the 2nd world war. Hitler tried to starve the nation into submission by using his forces to block food shipments into the UK. Of course, initially, we had to ration food but we also quickly mobilised to increase our growing capacity. So, whilst the population was significantly smaller in the 1940s, we had proportionately greater farm labour availability and there was more healthy soil to grow on, we shouldn’t be all doom and gloom about our potential to mobilise now. We have a great deal more knowledge, technology and capacity nowadays to grow food in a productive, sustainable, healthy way than we did back then. We just need to apply it.

So, here are 3 immediate recommendations for UK government:

1. Prioritise supply for the most vulnerable in society first

Those who are physically unable or have restricted liberty to feed themselves need to be top of the list to be fed with local produce. This means patients in hospital, prisoners in jail, children in schools, and military personnel should all be given first priority.

Five or six large supermarket companies in the UK have control over more than 90% of the supply of the UK’s food today. The government need to identify ways to access food supply outside of the normal primary wholesale market route because this is a market that is substantially reliant on food that supermarkets have chosen not to buy for one reason or another. In a scenario where we have a shortage, this primary wholesale market will shrink as supermarkets reduce the amount of food they release to it. In a situation where import supply is reduced, supermarket shelves will empty as consumers rush to stockpile. Supermarkets will stop dumping produce on the wholesale market in order to meet a simultaneous supply reduction and demand surge. Such a scenario leaves our hospitals, prisons, military and schools - that so heavily rely on the wholesale market today - without. So, reliance on a primary wholesale market alone is not a secure route to take.

2. Procure directly with local farms on a 12 region-basis across the UK from 2020/21 onwards

Adopting a dynamic food procurement approach to enable government to contract directly with primary producers is the best and potentially only way for public sector institutions like hospitals, schools and military to be sure they have sufficient control of the supply chain to guarantee ongoing supply in a “No-deal Brexit” scenario. It is too late to increase the amount of food grown in local farms for 2019 as they are under resourced in terms of labour (in fact access to labour post a no-deal Brexit scenario will need a plan in itself) and do not have sufficient lead time to prepare to sow seeds in early 2019. So, the earliest we can start this would be from January 2020. This coming calendar year 2019 is about getting the procurement framework, technology and operational infrastructure in place to ensure that from January 2020 onwards farms local to our major cities substantially increase their growing capacity to feed public sector institutions directly. By procuring the food a year in advance, the public purse will get best value as the marginal cost of growing 500 acres of organic carrots when they were already planning to grow 300 acres is relatively low compared to the fixed costs of growing in the first place.

This initial increase in local supply, can form the foundation of further growth in future years to feed the broader population with locally grown produce. By redirecting the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) money to more sustainable farming approaches the government could play an important hand in effectively managing and overseeing the supply to supermarkets. By increasing the supply of environmentally and socially sustainably produced food into both public and private sectors would help to both plug supply gaps and help to restore soil health in this country to provide the nutritional health our population needs.

3. Enable flexible access to migrant labour for farms now to increase product supply

Other than demand, the biggest barrier to increasing supply from the local farms I work with is labour. The farms have no idea how they will source the labour needed to increase their growing capacity. With high employment amongst British nationals and low desirability for most Britons to work in such roles, farmers are hugely reliant on migrant labour to sow, weed, and harvest their crops. The current uncertainty around farms ability to attract and enable migrant labour from EU and further afield effectively means local supply cannot expand even if we wanted it to. A fluid recruitment and immigration route is needed right now. Immigration opportunities to the UK need to be made attractive for such migrants. Current conditions in the UK have led to a recent exodus of non-British EU citizens even before Brexit becomes reality.

 

Rich Osborn - CEO, fresh-range