UK Food Policy Academics Warn of Serious Brexit Complications for UK Agro-food Sector


Academic analysis suggests the lack of attention to detail and serious capacity constraints in the UK administration could undermine the functioning of UK food safety and SPS control systems with this serving to disrupt the smooth functioning of import supply chains.  It also argues policy uncertainties around Brexit could well enhance the influence of large agro-food sector players to the detriment of the smooth functioning of agro-food sector supply chains.  This suggests a need for more proactive engagement of ACP exporters associations in these Brexit related policy issues.

An academic study drawn up by Professors from City University, Sussex University and Cardiff University has accused the UK government of ‘sleepwalking into food insecurity’, with the prospect of a future of ‘insecure, unsafe and increasingly expensive food supplies’ post-Brexit. The report maintains the UK government has ‘little idea of how it will replace decades of EU regulation’ in the area of food safety. Food safety is identified as one of three areas where particular challenges will be faced (the others include the future of agricultural subsidies and securing the agro-food sectors labour requirements) (1).

It maintains the current approach constitutes ‘a serious policy failure on an unprecedented scale’, with the scale of the challenge faced being ‘unprecedented for an advanced economy outside of wartime’ (1).

It was noted that ‘while the proposed great repeal bill would initially transplant EU protections into UK law, with a government committed to reducing the number of regulations, it would also allow ministers to change these without parliamentary debate or consent’ (1).

The report warns the ‘departure from the EU raises such urgent complications for food and agriculture that without focus on the issue “the risk is that food security in the UK will be seriously undermined”, leading to dwindling supplies and erratic prices.’ The report warned ‘there are also serious risks that standards of food safety will decline if the UK ceases to adopt EU safety rules, and instead accepts free-trade agreements with countries with significantly weaker standards’ (1).

The report maintains the Brexit campaigners have largely ‘ignored the inbuilt reliance the UK has on pan-European institutions’, that provides ‘a vast array of institutions and scientific infrastructure’ which ‘keeps UK food fit to eat’. It maintains the UK ‘Food Standards Agency is a shadow of its former self’, while the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs ‘has had years of cuts and suffers a serious staff shortage’, at a time when skilled agricultural negotiators will be essential. The report maintains it is far from clear how this institutional and scientific infrastructural vacuum will be filled (2).

In this context it should be noted that as part of the financial settlement discussions the EC envisages the EU will withdraw from the European Food Safety Authority (alongside withdrawing from 39 other  EU agencies, 11 EU institutions and consultative bodies, 8 joint venture initiatives, 7 dedicated funds, and 8 other bodies).

Against this background, amongst many other recommendations the report calls on the UK government to reconstitute a ‘co-operative set of arrangements with the EU food agencies with regard to regulatory synergies in food trade and standards’ (2).

At the operational level the report noted with ‘the UK importing 80% of its fresh vegetables and 40% of fresh fruit, a falling pound, and potential tariffs and costs from customs delays there could be significant price rises’. The report also highlighted the importance of migrant labour to the UK agro-food sector, with about a 1/3 of the workforce coming from outside the UK (1).

In addition the report highlights concerns that the lack of clarity on the future independent UK food and agricultural could leave the field open for a consolidation of the power and influence of large scale corporate players, which already play a dominant role in the UK food system (2). The report argues the UK ‘food system is already dominated by huge food companies’, with it being maintained ‘Brexit must not be an opportunity for further corporate capture of market power’. The report expresses concerns over the possibility of Brexit giving rise to a further concentration of market power within the UK agro-food system (2).

The report was issued on the same day as the opening of the second round of Brexit negotiations in Brussels, which saw the commencement of substantive negotiations. The UK Brexit Secretary David Davis was heavily criticized for leaving the meeting after only an hour to return for a Parliamentary vote in the UK. EU diplomats unofficially have expressed concerns that the lack of a clear Parliamentary majority in the UK could cause distractions which would hinder progress in the negotiations. These concerns have been heightened by an apparent lack of Cabinet consensus in the UK on issues vital to the Brexit process. Meanwhile domestically within the UK, calls have been made for UK Ministers to ‘engage with the substance of talks’. (4).

Representatives from the Department for Exiting the EU for their part stressed how the ‘talks have moved to technical working level discussions’, involving ‘over 90 UK officials’. In this context ministerial inputs are only seen as necessary where a divergence of views emerges. Currently UK officials are focused on seeking clarifications on the EC’s initial 9 position papers, dealing in particular with the financial settlement and citizens’ rights (4).

Comment and Analysis

While the academic report raises many domestic policy issues related to the future of UK agriculture and food policy, from an ACP perspective the most important areas of concern raised relate to the future institutional and scientific basis for the UK’s implementation of SPS and food safety controls on imports and the scope which Brexit provides for the further concentration of market power within the UK agro-food system.

The need to ensure regulatory continuity would appear to require the more active engagement of ACP private sector exporters in identifying, in association with UK importing bodies (e.g. the UK Fresh Produce Consortium) the regulatory matters of direct concern which could be overlooked given the multiplicity of issues to be addressed within the Brexit process (see companion article ‘Salient points for the ACP from a review of legal implications for the agro-food sector or Brexit’, 21 July 2017).

The concerns expressed over the possibility of Brexit giving rise to a further concentration of market power within the UK agro-food system, would appear to give heightened importance to the current on-going review of the scope of the UK Groceries Supply Chain Code of Practice and the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator. This is an issue of concern to ACP exporters, since regulatory uncertainty post Brexit could provide even further scope for the kind of abusive businesses practices within ACP-EU supply chains which currently reduce the commercial value of trade relations with the UK (for details see companion article ‘Role of UK Groceries Code Adjudicator could be extended’, 17 July 2017).

This suggests a need for ACP exporters groups to seek alliances with UK development agencies actively campaigning around the need to extend the scope of the UK Groceries Supply Chain Code of Practice and broaden the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator to cover importers who act as intermediaries between ACP exporters and UK supermarkets.  The most notable UK development agency engaged in this issue is Traidcraft, which has made submissions to the Groceries Code Adjudicator Review (5).

(1) Guardian, ‘UK ‘sleepwalking’ into food insecurity after Brexit, academics say’, 17 July 2017
(2) Tim Lang, Erik Millstone & Terry Marsden, ‘A Food Brexit: time to get real: A Brexit Briefing’, July 2017
(3)  EC, ‘Position paper “Essential Principles on Financial Settlement”’, 12 June 2017
(4) Guardian, ‘David Davis leaves Brussels after less than an hour of Brexit talks’, 17 July 2017
(5) Traidcraft, ‘Traidcraft submission to ‘Groceries Code Adjudicator Review: Part II’,

Key words:          Brexit

Area for Posting: SPS/Food Safety, BREXIT