Nothing reasonable about it: worst-case scenario for food poverty in the UK

By Laura Savage,
Best for Britain's Campaigns Officer

Here’s a ‘reasonable’ worst-case scenario for anyone struggling to make ends meet.

Supplies of certain foodstuffs shrink, driving up prices, and demand for other food products rises, also driving up prices.

Overall, there’s no ‘food shortage’ but, down at the supermarket, your tenner isn’t buying quite as much as it did. There’s stuff on the shelves, you just can’t afford as much of it.

If you’re one of the hundreds of thousands facing Covid-induced unemployment – or one of the millions already at risk from food poverty – it’s a bleak scenario.

It’s also why we should all be cheering for both sides in the Brexit negotiations –  Michel Barnier and David Frost, and their respective bosses, have it in their gift to make the situation better or worse as the clock runs down on talks, but one side can hardly reach an agreement all by itself.

As we were reminded this week, food supply problems are a far from unrealistic scenario. Leaked Brexit planning documents made it clear that, if UK-EU talks end badly, the Government expects food supplies to be impacted.

One of the documents describes a ‘reasonable worst case scenario’ for food supplies would see ‘a tightening of supply and an increase in demand for certain agri-food products, but not cause an overall food shortage’.

It adds that ‘the effect of this disruption is likely to be reduced supply availability, especially of certain fresh products’.

It all sounds vaguely manageable, reassuring even, particularly the soothing conclusion that there will be no ‘overall food shortage’.

In Britain, there is no ‘overall car shortage’ but that doesn’t mean we can all afford a new Nissan … or even a tired Toyota.

Neither is there an ‘overall internet shortage’ but 1.9million households can’t afford access to the world wide web.

So, don’t be lulled into a false sense of security about how serious food poverty is in this country. Ten million adults in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have to deal with food insecurity every year, and Covid-19 has, of course, made things worse. The Trussell Trust estimated over one in ten children experienced food insecurity last year – and that was before the pandemic.

Come January, a series of pressures on food prices may or may not include the tariffs that will be applied in the event of a No Deal exit.

If there is No Deal, tariffs will be applied directly to everyday food items, like pasta, baked beans and tinned tomatoes. This would mean price increases by up to a third, the Affordable Food Deal has found. For some already struggling to put food on the table, that is simply unaffordable.

But any disruption to trade, even if we agree to no tariff trading with Europe, could be difficult. New and confusing customs rules mean more time and money wasted by food importers – and more cost for the customer. Long queues of lorries at the Channel border would be disastrous for fresh, healthy foods which need refrigeration quickly.

That’s why hauliers are warning that disruption at UK ports will cause delays, increase costs and potentially impact the quality of our food.

If Brexit weakens the pound, the 26 per cent of our food that comes from the EU is going to be pricier. Gone are the heady days of 2015, when a quid would get you €1.40. Now you’re lucky to exchange it for €1.10.

And No Deal doesn’t just impact the food we get from Europe. Without an Affordable Food Deal, the UK may be forced into a subpar back-up deal with the USA, along with their subpar food. It seems nearly everyone has heard of chlorinated chicken, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Hundreds of thousands of cattle kept in inhumane conditions, pumped full of antibiotics and hormones (banned in Britain since 1980s), to then be slaughtered in unsanitary abattoirs. Crops grown with toxic pesticides, which are also illegal here. This is par for the course for many US mega-farms. And it could be what our farms look like before long.

British farmers are faced with an unenviable choice if this kind of cheap, substandard food comes to our supermarkets: lower standards to compete (while excluding themselves from the EU market which will insist on the world-class standards we used to enjoy), or be priced out of business.

All this while farmers have seen the worst harvests in 25 years, restricting supplies of many crops and driving prices up. No wonder the NFU and Keir Starmer have joined forces this week to back British farming. As the Labour leader says: “No one wants lower quality food on our plates, but unless the Prime Minister shows some leadership and backs British farmers there is a real risk this could happen.”

Britain really does not need any additional pressures on food prices or quality, and that’s why we should all be hoping that Michael Gove is being at least honest and, ideally, reserved when he says the chances of a UK-EU deal are now around about two-thirds.

It’s not exactly the ‘oven-ready’ deal we were promised by Boris Johnson, nor the ‘easiest deal in history’ promised by Liam Fox (who can now add ‘becoming WTO leader’ to his list of unfulfilled ambitions, a list that includes that ‘easy Brexit deal’ and ‘signing 40 trade agreements in a jiffy’).

But a comprehensive deal will be good for Britain, good for Europe – and good for every one of us, especially the most vulnerable.

Fingers crossed for a little compromise on both sides. It will put food on the table.

If you want to make sure both sides reach a deal which keeps food on the table, send a letter to the Prime Minister and ask him to deliver the deal he promised.

Send a message now

Laura Savage
Campaigns Officer, Best for Britain

Follow Best for Britain on Twitter at @BestforBritain