No-deal Brexit – will the UK be able to feed itself?
We cannot escape the fact that the UK grows only 61% of the food it eats, according to the National Farming Union (NFU). We buy 40% of our fresh fruit and vegetables from the EU. The UK is self-sufficient in pre-packed potatoes but imports processed potatoes from the EU. Britain produces 80% of the cheese and beef consumed by the nation. The UK imports around 11% of the wheat it consumes. Of Britain's imported food and drink we import 79% of it from the EU.
So if there was no access to produce from the single market could the UK feed itself? Some experts say we could but it would mean a change of eating habits, it would mean rebuilding horticulture and putting more investment into primary food production. The nation would have to eat less meat and eat more vegetable protein. Farming methods would need to change and there would have to be more subsidies for farmers and more land would have to be put under cultivation. Such changes take time and a decade would not be unrealistic to see these changes in agriculture beginning to take effect.
For the UK to become self-sufficient in food production would be almost impossible because food production could never keep up with population growth and demand. So there would always be a need to import food into Britain unless the country dramatically reduced its food consumption per person, unless the British public adopted a diet higher in grains, soya products and vegetables. If all of this took place whilst adopting a radical new approaches to farming geared to high output from smaller, more efficient farms then perhaps the UK would have a minimum dependency on imported foods. Is any of this likely to happen? Probably not and certainly not in the short to medium term.
Where will our food come from?
If we part company with the EU, where will the UK source its short-term need for food until new farming methods become a viable option? We already import 11% of our food from the USA, China, Brazil and Australia. We have bilateral agreements with Canada, Norway and Chile accounting for 9% of our food imports. The remaining 1% food imports are from India, Ukraine and Iran. A complete break from the EU would force the UK to import more from these countries and the result would be an immediate increase in the cost of food because of the increased transport and storage costs.
The UK would have to source food from other countries than those mentioned above, which gives rise to issues of quality, standards and safety. To negotiate contracts for food with these countries would mean agreeing to food standards and public health standards determined by the counties supplying us, so prepare for chlorinated chicken from the USA, irradiated foodstuffs and prawns dried on the roadside from Mumbai (been there, seen it!). Not to mention lengthy trade negotiations. Homegrown food could be more expensive than imported foods because UK labour costs are higher and production and quality standards are higher and more costly.
One area where the UK could improve its food production fairly quickly with comparatively minimum investment is in redeveloping its lost horticultural business. Any produce grown in Polytunnels or under glass would be considerably cheaper than similar imports. The revitalization of the UK's Horticulture business may be the greatest success story of Brexit considering most of this particular local source of fresh fruit and vegetables was lost as a direct result of being in the European Single Market and is more easily re–established than other farming methods.
There is also the problem of the loss of seasonal workers on UK farms with the restriction of movement of labour from EU countries and a cap on migrant workers entering the country from non–EU countries. Currently, about 70% of the UK's 80,000–strong horticulture workforce come from Romania or Bulgaria, according to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, while just one in 1,000 are British. Developing UK farming means we will need more labour. Where this labour force will come from and how it will be trained up will be a major problem.
Can we trust any UK government to help us?
If there are serious food shortages following Brexit will central and local government abandon the civilian population and leave their survival to chance? Will these authorities be in a position to make even basic provisions for feeding the general population? Chances are they will in the short-term but there is a risk that the general public will be left to fend for themselves for a varied period of time depending on the magnitude of the post–Brexit chaos and the ability of those in charge to organize themselves and help the general population. The South of England will suffer less that the Midlands, North of England and Scotland — why? Because historically these areas are always abandoned when times are lean by UK central government which favours the south of the country.
Why would I suggest that the British government would leave its population on the breadline? Well, we already have 8.4 million working–age adults, 4.5 million children and 1.4 million pensioners living below the breadline today, that's over 14 million UK citizens living in poverty (a word abolished by the current Conservative Government, but poverty it is!). If successive governments have let this situation go unsolved culminating in 21.2% of the country's population living in poverty in 2018, why would one think any current British government capable of coping with the great uncertainties of post-Brexit food shortages brought about by a failed trading relationship with the EU? Just look at the statistics for the number of people in the UK in 2018 using food banks — 1,332,952 three–day emergency food supplies delivered to people in crisis between the beginning of January and the end of November 2018 (according to the Trussel Trust). Remember that the food banks are organized by charities and the food is donated through the generosity of the British public, the government have let this untenable state of affairs escalate and the government do nothing to alleviate this desperate situation.
It is fair to conclude that food will be more expensive post–Brexit, many seasonal and staple foods will be in short supply, and many more people will be living in poverty and using food banks than ever before.
Is this post–Brexit Doomsday Phobia?
Doomsday phobia is a broad category that can encompass any fear of the end of the world as we know it. What lies behind the phobia is not just the fear of dying (which it is ultimately) but includes a fear of suffering a period of severe deprivation and individual suffering that will change our ordered and comfortable lives forever. This is a fear that locally the establishment will break down and everyone caught up in the disaster will suffer great hardships and have their lives changed forever for the worse and ultimately, perhaps even perish. Post–Brexit Doomsday Phobia is simply the fear of the unknown. However, the chaos arising from the tragic handling of Britain's withdrawal from the EU does nothing to calm these fears. If anything, it fans the flames of fear.
Brexit will change everyone's lives and no one, not even the government, actually know just how much our lives will change and they do not really know if our lives will change for the better or for the worst. This legitimizes our right to prepare the worst. The question being just how do we do that?
Stockpile or not?
To what extent do we need to prepare for a post–Brexit food shortage? This question is akin to asking, 'How long is a piece of string?' Preparing for any possible food shortage and storing food in the home is a matter of common sense and degree of trust in the authorities to help if things go wrong and we have covered this point. It is also a matter of how close you live to major supermarkets and how long you estimate their stocks will last. Whether you build a proper food store or just stock a week's extra food in the pantry depends upon how great you think is the risk of shortage; it also depends on your economy and upon the space available for storage.
If you decide to stockpile
Having decided to stockpile emergency food supplies,there are certain practicalities:
Carefully estimate the physical storage size needed for your store and read the tips on food storage before deciding on a location.
Choose long–life foods that are as near as possible to your normal diet and aim for variety to prevent food fatigue. Digestion is a serious consideration. A sudden change of diet can radically affect the digestive system.
Give careful thought to food containers. Food grade plastic storage bins are ideal but expensive. Plastic tubs and buckets with airtight snap on lids are okay if lined with food grade plastic (food should never be wrapped in any other type of plastic). The only way to be certain plastic is food grade is to buy containers from a specialist company. Second–hand containers from bakeries, factories and shops that have contained food raw materials (like bread dough or ice cream) are safe but make certain the lids are still airtight and the containers are thoroughly washed and sterilized with a proprietary sterilizing cleanser. Containers should be stackable if you are storing large quantities of food or have restricted storage space.
Managing your emergency food supply
If food is not stored properly you have wasted your time, money, and maybe it could cost you your life — so read the following common sense tips carefully:
First consume all the food in the house that is likely to perish – but not all the chocolate bars.
Food store discipline — rules, tips and advice:
What foods are likely to be scarce?
Most of our fresh salads, broccoli, tomatoes, avocados, pepper fruits, cauliflower, cabbage, etc., are imported from the EU. The same applies to most of the fresh fruit we consume. Fresh fruit and vegetables are likely to take a hike in price post–Brexit and face restricted availability. It isn't possible to grow all the fruit you are probably used to buying but you could try growing your own vegetables. Invest in some packs of seeds.
Other EU imports include olive oil, anchovies, pasta, rice and tomato paste. Proteins include canned and dried kidney beans, butter beans, black beans, chickpeas and tinned fish like herrings, sardines and tuna. Add to that tinned olives, pickled capers and jarred peppers and a whole range of vegetarian foods like tofu and soya milk. Honey is also imported from the EU.
The above list is not exhaustive. To determine what foods your family needs to keep a supply of, list the foods you use, and notice the country of origin. For many, stockpiling food is an expensive undertaking. It requires some planning and management (the more you stockpile the more planning needed). When considering stockpiling one has to ask if it is really necessary and one should consider home‐grown and home produced alternatives to the foods you have been used to buying. If you are used to particular foods and brands it is wise to remember that however much stock you lay in, it will be used up at some point. So it may be better to have a total rethink about your dietary needs before going to the considerable time and expense of stocking up your favourite foods.