The Brexit Food Prices and Availability Report from the House of Lords’ EU energy and environment sub-committee outlined that being part of the EU customs union has meant food from the EU can be imported without any tariffs or custom barriers.
While the UK Government hopes to negotiate a trade agreement to allow tariff-free and ‘frictionless’ imports of food to continue, this is by no means a guaranteed outcome.
The committee also stated that even in the ‘best-case scenario’ with no tariffs and few customs barriers, international rules would mean the UK would have to conduct more customs and borders checks that it does now.
However, if an agreement cannot be negotiated by the time the UK leaves the EU, the increase in tariffs could lead to significant prices rises, while the additional customs workload could choke the UK’s ports and airports as well as significantly disrupt food deliveries.
EU trade agreements
As well as the 30% of food the UK imports from the EU, an additional 11% of food comes from non-EU countries as part of EU trade agreements.
There are 40 of these agreements in place, covering 56 different countries. The committee is calling on the Government to urgently seek agreement with these countries to maintain the status quo during the transition period as well as undertaking the negotiations that will need to happen to maintain this important aspect of the UK’s food supply after December 2020.
The committee also found that EU food imports that could not easily be replaced by either producing more in the UK or importing more from non-EU countries.
UK self-sufficiency has been declining for the past three decades, the committee claimed, and could not quickly be reversed.
Confidence and concerns
EU energy and environment sub-committee chairman Lord Teverson said: “Throughout our inquiry there was a striking contrast between Government confidence and industry concerns.
“The minister may not be worried about the potential for Brexit to impact on the price and availability of food, but the representatives of the food and farming industry, importers, port authorities and consumer organisations were vocal in their concerns.
“The Government has some important choices to make. They have said they want to maintain high food standards but also that they would be willing to have minimal customs checks to avoid disruption at borders.
“They have said they want UK food and farming to be exemplars of high-quality production but also they will seek trade deals that secure lower prices for consumers.
“We are calling on the Government to set out what checks they do intend to carry out on food imports, to allow the food industry and authorities time to prepare and to reassure consumers that standards will be upheld.
“We would urge the Government to consider the impact that Brexit may have on food inequality in the UK: will we have a situation where high quality, local produce is available for those who can afford it, with cheaper food imported for those on lower incomes?
“The UK needs a comprehensive food policy, to tackle these complex issues and we urge the Government to produce one with some urgency.”