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Blog 16. Food poverty and Brexit

Here we are just a month before Brexit and we still don’t know exactly what is going to happen, or what its effects will be. But here are a few thoughts around food and food security.

What’s the current situation?

• We have a food supply system dependent on ‘just in time’ methods of distribution largely controlled through chains of supermarkets. This works if there is a free flow of goods across borders but could not work if inspections and tariffs are imposed. Food ingredients cross and re-cross borders in the process of preparation of many items such as cheese and baked goods.
• Even so there are many parts of the country, including both rural and some urban areas, which are ‘food deserts’. Here there are few food shops and these rarely supply fresh food; in addition prices are high.
• While much of the UK’s food is imported, particularly from the EU, food grown in the UK is dependent on foreign workers coming from Europe for picking and packaging fruit and vegetables, while abattoirs also rely on similar sources for much of their labour.
• There are large numbers of people living in poverty in the UK according to the ONS (Office for National Statistics) (see Most of those living in poverty are also food insecure and may be forced to buy and eat cheaper foods which tend to be high in fat and sugar.
• It is because of the increase in food poverty that we have seen the rise of food banks, deriving their food from public donations via supermarkets and more recently from the use of ‘surplus’ food donated by food suppliers.

It is scarcely surprising that parts of the national press have been warning of the effects of Brexit on both imports and exports, including food. In May 2017, Dan Roberts wrote that leaving the EU without a trade deal could put the majority of British food exports at risk ().

A more recent article by Zoe Wood on 23rd Feb. 2019 points out that nearly one third of British food comes from the EU bloc. She mentions as an example Cheddar cheese (the nation’s favourite), most of which comes from Eire and which could see a dramatic rise in costs with the imposition of tariffs under a no-deal scenario.

These warnings are echoed elsewhere, such as in the Huffington Post which has carried a series of articles about the likely impact of Brexit, especially one without a deal, including empty shelves in the supermarkets and fresh fruit and vegetables rotting at ports:

Given that the poorest people spend the highest proportion of their income on food, they are likely to be the hardest hit in the event of price rises.

A number of organisations have produced reports.

As early as July 2016, just after the referendum, the Rowntree Foundation produced a Brexit briefing urging the UK government to produce a plan to boost the poorest regions of the UK following Brexit. It showed the 12 regions scheduled to receive the most EU funding to tackle poverty and boost growth up to 2020. One of these is Wales, which was set to receive £1.9bn, representing £627 per head of population.

In September 2018 Rowntree produced another report ‘How could Brexit affect poverty in the UK?’. It predicted increases in prices of food which, coupled with possible falls in real wages and lower employment could be a perfect storm for the 14 million people in the UK who live in poverty. Child poverty is set to increase further after Brexit, affecting poorer areas most. And, as mentioned above, there will be an end of EU funding related to poverty reduction.

Last year the Soil Association also produced a number of policy briefings, noting that food needed to be put at the top of the political agenda, particularly given the extent to which the rules of food trade affect public health. In an article in The Guardian Julian Baggini made use of one of these reports ), plus another by the Harvard School of Public Health, to point out that trade liberalisation tends to lead to an increase in so-called ‘junk’ food and thus to obesity and other health problems, citing the example of NAFTA, which has changed the obesity rates for the worse in both Mexico and Canada.

What about government?

During 2018 DEFRA held a consultation about its command paper ‘Health and Harmony’, a revised version of which was published in September. The Food Ethics Council made a submission in May, noting that ‘Household food security is an area not adequately covered in the command paper. We urge the government to take stronger measures to tackle the root causes of household food insecurity…’ The FEC also argued strongly for public health to be supported by future food and farming policy, an argument also put forward by Sustain in its own response to the command paper.

Academic studies have also been plentiful.

An early report on the likely effects of Brexit on food security was written in 2017 by academics Tim Lang, Erik Millstone and Terry Marsden: ‘A Food Brexit: time to get real’.

Subsequently, these authors and a number of others from a range of universities have supplied useful and detailed information on food and Brexit in a raft of reports written under the auspices of the organisation Food Research Collaboration.

In terms of discussing food poverty, the most pertinent of these are ‘Feeding Britain: food security after Brexit’ (Tim Lang, Tony Lewis, Terry Marsden and Erik Millstone) and ‘Why Local Authorities should prepare Food Brexit Plans’ (Tim Lang, Erik Millstone and Gary Macfarlane). Both of these studies emphasise the importance of openness with the public and the need for public engagement.

In the first paper, written in 2017, the authors recommend a focus on the potential adverse effects of Brexit on food security and the avoidance of a hard Brexit ‘at all costs’. They also propose the creation of a new Sustainable Food Security Strategy.

More than a year later, in the second paper, the authors argue that Local Authorities (LAs) have a crucial role to play and propose the creation of LA Food Resilience Teams, which can mitigate the impact on SMEs (small and medium businesses) and also feed information to central government so that it is aware of local conditions.

And food aid?
If there is a food shortage, will the food industry continue to provide and will food banks continue to be able to help sustain their current number of clients? The Trussell Trust, for example, has warned that food banks are already fully stretched and is preparing “crisis responses” for Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal.

At present, it doesn’t look like food poverty is going to decrease any time soon.