‘Hard’ Brexit Could Create Fruit and Vegetable Shortages in the UK


There are growing concerns that a ‘hard’ Brexit could lead to serious fruit and vegetable shortages on the UK market.  However if an extension of the current duty free-quota free access to the UK market could be extended from day 1 of the UK’s full departure from the EU, then a ‘hard’ Brexit could present opportunities for certain ACP fruit and vegetable exporters. In this regard East African suppliers would appear to be best placed to exploit any opportunities which might emerge. While there is considerable uncertainty over how EU27/UK trade relations will develop in the coming years, planning for a ‘hard’ Brexit scenario could usefully be initiated.

Concerns have been raised over the health implications of a ‘hard’ Brexit, given that of the recommended intake of 35 portions of fruit a week ‘just one portion is grown in the UK and picked by British or non-EU workers’. The bulk of fruit and vegetables consumed in meeting ‘the five-a-day health target’ are sourced from beyond the UK’s borders.

A recent survey for the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission ‘found that of the average 28 portions consumed by Britons of the recommended weekly intake of 35 portions of fruit and vegetables, the equivalent of 11 portions came from the EU, seven from the rest of the world and nine arose from the UK and were harvested by workers from other EU countries. The equivalent of just one portion was grown in the UK and harvested by British or non-EU workers’.  It was argued ‘if there is no deal the system is very fragile and the impact on the UK food supply is likely to be dramatic’ (1).

Against this background the British Growers Association has released a report on seasonal labour demand in the fresh produce sector in the UK. According to the Chief Executive of British Growers there is a ‘very real threat that crops could be left in the field because there is no one to harvest or pack them’. He called for ‘a practical solution for seasonal working as part of the Brexit deal’. It was further argued that for the fresh produce sector ‘the ongoing lack of clarity is the last thing business needs’ (2).

A range of initiatives are being launched to try and get to grips with the challenges which will be faced in securing UK fruit and vegetable supplies under different Brexit scenarios (1).

Comment and Analysis

The shortages of fruit and vegetables which could emerge on the UK market in the context of a ‘hard’ Brexit, involving the re-introduction of MFN tariffs on mutual EU27/UK trade, could see the emergence of new market opportunities for some ACP fruit and vegetable exporters. Exporters in East Africa would appear to be particular well placed.

However this assumes existing duty free-quota free access to the UK market enjoyed by East African exporters can be speedily consolidated in the immediate post-Brexit period. While, given existing UK government policy commitments, this poses no problems for least developed countries in East Africa (seed companion articles ‘UK government commits to extending EBA access for LDCs post Brexit’, 30 June 2017 and ‘UK WTO representative seeks to clarify future UK trade treatment of developing countries’, 3 July 2017), for Kenya the regions’ largest horticultural exporter, the situation could prove more problematical given its status as a non-LDC.

The situation of Kenya can be seen as of critical importance, given its role as a transport hub and the volume of cargo, trade with and through Kenya, represents. A critical factor in taking advantage of any opportunities which might emerge will be the establishment of direct air freight links to the UK.  In this context East African exporters could usefully open up a dialogue with freight handling companies such as Network Airline Management on the scope for expanding direct air freight services to the UK.

Until June 2017, when a direct route from Nairobi to Doncaster Sheffield airport was opened up (3), Network Airline Management routed all its freight services from East Africa to the UK market through Liege airport in Belgium, from where it was transported by road to the UK (4).  A ‘hard Brexit’ could greatly complicate logistical arrangements along this route (see companion article ‘Post Brexit port chaos could disrupt ACP Supply Chains to the UK via the Netherlands and Belgium’, 4 August 2017), with new routes to market needing to be found if trade disruption is to be avoided and any new opportunities which may emerge are to be successfully exploited.

In addition East African exporters may already need to start exploring with the UK Fresh Produce Consortium and British Retail Consortium the specific products where new market opportunities could emerge in the context of a ‘hard’ Brexit, involving the reintroduction of MFN duties on mutual EU27/UK trade in fruit and vegetables. This may include scope for the development of more consumer ready packaged fruit and vegetable products, given the labour constraint which could emerge in the UK fruit and vegetable packing sector, if no agreement is reached on citizens’ rights and migrant labour issues.

(1) Guardian, ‘Most of UK’s fruit and veg is from other EU nations ‘so Brexit impact may be dramatic’, 1 November 2017
(2) Britishgrowers.org, ‘Practical solutions needed for fresh produce markets as art of Brexit’, 24 October 2017
(3) Doncaster/Sheffield Airport, ‘New cargo win for Airport’, June 21, 2017
(4) Network Aviation Group,


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