Economy and Trade

Brexit: A vortex for UK food and farming

Food and farming has not been high on the Brexit agenda to date and is currently suffering from a Cinderella status in negotiations argue Professors Terry Marsden and Kevin Morgan. Here they maintain that an urgent debate is needed about its future given that it is a sector critical to future employment, public health, ecological integrity and social justice.

As the contested process of Brexit begins to unfold, there are signs that the country may once again be sleepwalking into an agri-food crisis.

Unlike the Imperial period, when the British state could confer imperial preferences and other kinds of quid pro quo upon its exporting colonies, it will now be in a far weaker trading position to negotiate trade deals around the world. We should recognise that the EU empowered British food trade rather than stifled it.

So, where is this going to leave food producers, processors, those who currently work in the industry, and indeed the food consumer?

Well before Brexit emerged, our UK food system was both dysfunctional and broken – creating more food poverty, greater health risks, and dangerously reliant upon highly carbonised imports. However, we would argue that without a national strategy for food and farming, where the country comes together to develop an innovative, internationalist and integrated-systems-approach to the production and supply of sustainable food and promoting sustainable diets, we will enter and leave the Brexit process in ways which could severely exacerbate food poverty and food vulnerability for a generation or more.

After a brief initial ‘hangover’ period following the referendum result, when many interests in the sector were arguing for a sort of ‘business as usual’ model for British food and farming with access to the Single Market, and various support mechanisms maintained, it is now clear following the Brexit white paper that a ‘hard food Brexit’ approach will ensue.

Food and farming may well be at the rear of the queue of sectors to be negotiated in the interregnum that will emerge after the UK exits from the Single Market, with the high value added sectors of pharmaceuticals, cars, financial services, and aerospace leading the discussions, followed by electronics, fisheries, steel, oil and gas.

Food and farming will not be the only sector that will find itself between a ‘rock and a hard place’ regarding trading access to post Brexit Europe. It will be important therefore to create a more positive climate for progressive debate, to begin to spell out the consequences of these policy actions for the food and farming sector, particularly in the political vacuum which has engulfed Westminster with regard to the long-term vulnerabilities to which central government is exposing large sections of its domestic population.

The sector is highly vulnerable to whole systems regime change. So far, largely because of the fragmented and contested debates in the sector on the Brexit process, this overall systemic effect has been largely ignored. Systemic effects mean not only that one condition may lead to another; it also means that after this effect different negative/positive feedback effects can take place which increase/decrease the resilience or vulnerability of the food and farming system as a whole.

A ‘hard food’ Brexit process could create a significant perturbation or structural shift in the current UK food system, which could lead to a series of deepening negative feedbacks in the already vulnerable food system as whole.

This then has the potential to create the conditions for a vortex – a series of interconnected links and causes and effects which lead to the decreasing capacity of the food system as a whole to sustain itself.

Because the food and farming system is so deeply integrated with the EU and other world markets, we are grossly underestimating these potential vortex tendencies.

So what are some of the conditions that would create the vortex?

On the food production side:

  • Leaving the EU single market and making it more costly and more complex to trade in Europe will be devastating for British farmers given the overall size and scale of the EU market, especially in beef, dairy and lamb products.
  • Turning (very slowly) to other trade deals and subsequent markets (e.g Australasia, North America) will take time and likely be far smaller in scale.
  • Prospective “America First” trade deals with the US will seriously open up UK domestic markets to less regulated food products such as hormone-treated beef and dairy, GM feeds and food inputs.
  • Farm subsidies (especially Pillar 1 single farm payments) may cease or be curtailed, even though many family farms are totally dependent upon them for survival. Large–scale cereal producers whilst potentially competing on more volatile world markets, will need to adopt new precision and automated technologies, again increase economies of scale. Dairying will only be economic on intensive mega dairies, further leading to concentration in the sector.
  • Retailers will find it more difficult to source cheaply imported goods (see recent marmite or courgette issues) both as a result of rising costs of food imports and climate change effects;
  • Intensive horticulture will no longer have access to cheap migrant labour and will force some producers either to further automate, liquidate, or move production out of the UK to EU states with cheap labour- with more horticulture production in Eastern Europe and Southern Europe.
  • Far from Brexit leading to a reduction in ‘red tape’ and regulation, the regulatory rules between different territories and food sectors will become more complex. The UK agencies (DEFRA and FSA) will have to shoulder more of the regulatory burden for food safety, hygiene and quality branding. This will come at significant public cost.
  • As we are already seeing in the British rural areas, decline in government tax revenues means increases in rural business tax rates. This is likely to continue, as with overall council taxes.

On the consumption side:

  • Urban consumers are likely to find increases in food and energy prices at their local supermarkets, exacerbating already record levels of food and energy poverty.
  • Short supply chain quality foods (including organics) will be available but at higher cost and exclusionary, fuelling more polarised consumption patterns.
  • Diet-related health conditions – which are already threatening to bankrupt the NHS – will grow especially among the young, the old and the most vulnerable.
  • New trade deals could reduce the capacity and inclination of governments to procure national and regional brands, giving precedence to more imported foods.
  • Consumers will face a wider variety of food qualities and indeed food risks.

Food and farming is not just a commodity-making sector like cars, drugs or indeed finance, all of which are instrumentally significant activities – they are means to an end.

Food and farming in contrast, is an intrinsically significant activity because it is vital to human health and well-being – it is therefore both a means and an end.

As an ecological as well as an economic system, it deserves a special status in policy circles. For all these reasons, we need an urgent public debate about the future of food and farming in the UK because this sector – a sector that is critical to future employment, public health, ecological integrity and social justice – is currently suffering from a Cinderella status in Brexit negotiations.

This post first appeared on the Sustainable Places Research Institute Blog

This post represents the views of the author and neither those of the Welsh Brexit blog, nor Cardiff University.

Professor Terry Marsden is Director of the Sustainable Places Research Institute, and Professor of Environmental Policy and Planning in the School of Geography and Planning.

Professor Kevin Morgan is Professor of Governance and Development in the School of Geography and Planning, Cardiff University, where he is also Dean of Engagement.


  • David Collie

    An advantage of Brexit is that the UK could pursue a less protectionist agricultural policy than the EU. This would allow consumers to benefit from lower prices (so this would be an internationalist policy that alleviated food poverty).

    However, if the UK pursued such a policy then it would make negotiations with the EU about tariff rate quotas on agricultural products rather difficult. The UK would want access to the protected EU market for its agricultural products, but if the UK eliminated tariff rate quotas on its imports then the EU would have access to the UK market regardless of the outcome of the negotiations (and the EU would probably not export much to the UK if the UK market was liberalised).

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