Prof Chris Elliott, Prof Tim Benton, Prof Tim Lang, Tom Heap | (c) Dr. Sabine Bonneck

Brexit as an opportunity – for what?

Conference on #FoodBrexit on Nov 1st 2018

About 40 experts gathered at the FoodBrexit conference of the New Food Magazine in London. They discussed possible or already noticeable effects of Brexit on the food sector. The media coverage so far doesn’t seem to be wrong; in fact the supporters are already looking forward to free trade agreements and to getting rid of what they consider the over-cautious European rules. Most popular examples are the use of pesticides and the cultivation of genetically modified plants. And they have no problems with the chlorinated chicken either. The freedoms are to give rise to new opportunities that give farmers a boost and from which future generations will also benefit.

Negative impact of Brexit is already perceptible

Brexit is already clearly having a negative impact on the labour market. Gillian Haythornthwaite explained that unemployment rates in Europe have fallen and skilled workers have become scarce in some cases. Governments are even offering their citizens incentives to return to their home countries. The future for foreign workers in Britain is so uncertain that the wave of emigration has already set in.

The more the discussion progressed, the more critical the voices became. Tim Benton emphasised that the food system must be fundamentally changed. The production of gigantic masses of cheap food will kill society because of its negative impact on the environment and human health. If diet-related diseases continue to develop in this form, soon no health system in the western world will be able to bear the costs. Tim Lang once again stated that the government had no plan for the post-Brexit period. He called for a vision to be developed.

Dominic Watkins presented sobering results of a survey among 1,000 Britons. The majority believes that food prices will rise after Brexit. They are unhappy with how the government has handled Brexit so far and no longer confident about the future.

Lowering food safety standards or overcome over-precautious rules?

Chris Elliott moderated the discussion on food safety. Does Brexit bring with it the danger that standards will be watered down or reduced? Or does allowing chickens treated with chlorine simply mean shaking off exaggerated European regulations? The answer lies largely in the eye of the beholder.

The retail representatives were confident. The range of goods will certainly change as a result of Brexit, but retail will always be able to supply people with food. Even in the case of No Deal Brexit. However, the sales representatives were also able to say very precisely that this would cost money. If the No Deal Brexit becomes reality at the end of March next year, it would certainly have an immense impact on the Easter business.

A fact: after Brexit, Britain will have a land border with the EU

Of course, the intensive exchange of goods with the Republic of Ireland was also an issue. The quantities of goods which today cross the borders in both directions can only be handled because there is no customs duty. Any delay, however small, at the borders would immediately lead to huge traffic jams and delays in deliveries. In a nutshell, Michael Bell said: This is not about an Irish question, but about the fact that after the Brexit, Britain will have a land border with the EU.

Finally, the representatives of the regions impressed the audience with facts and figures. England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland are affected differently; after all, they import and export to varying degrees to the Republic of Ireland and the rest of Europe. Drastically to the point was Wales. The future of Welsh fishermen is currently completely unclear. They can only export fish to France if it is on the shelves of traders in France 12 hours after being caught. That is not feasible without an extremely friendly agreement and without renouncing border controls.

A lot of helplessness

It was not a question of developing strategies, instead details were discussed. For the observer, it is almost unbelievable that the regions do not seem to be preparing for the Brexit together at any point. The opponents of Brexit seem to have shifted to seeing the inevitable as an opportunity for improvement. But the event didn’t give much encouragement that fundamental improvements would come. The proponents were aware of the anticipation of future freedoms, so there is little doubt that chlorinated chicken will soon be on people’s plates in Britain. Whether this, combined with free trade agreements, will lead to more happiness and prosperity for the population remains to be seen.

Dr. Sabine Bonneck