• For almost half a century, the UK’s food system – comprising the totality of food production, transport, manufacturing, retailing and consumption – has been intrinsically and intricately linked to its membership of the European Community and, subsequently, the EU. Arguably, for no other sectors are the challenges and opportunities of Brexit as extensive as they are for UK food and agriculture.
• Reforming the UK’s food system won’t be easy. The 21st century economic, market, regulatory and political systems are exceedingly resistant to change, locked into the way they have evolved over decades. The tight Brexit timeline, the complexities of negotiations and the political pressure to secure new trade deals could easily lead to hasty decisions that are poorly conceived and become near impossible to correct.
• There is a risk of a two-tier regulatory system emerging whereby, after its withdrawal from the EU, the UK produces food at higher standards but imports cheaper and potentially lower-quality food from countries with reduced welfare or environmental standards. These developments could affect consumer confidence and cause public distrust.
• Meanwhile, new market conditions could incentivize greater intensification and/or reduce the number of small farms, affecting the profitability and structure of the UK farming sector. This should be managed carefully to ensure that the cultural link between British citizens and their rural environment is not negatively affected.
• The UK will also need to invest in more reliable supply chains and develop resilience in prospective partner countries to help them respond to the combined threats of climate change and global environmental degradation, as this could impact the resilience of the UK’s food system, food prices and availability.
• Currently, the UK operates on a ‘just in time’ food system, maintaining five to 10 days’ worth of groceries in the country (often less in the case of fresh produce). Once the UK is outside the EU, its food industry will need to factor in time for longer inspections of food imports at its borders, and build the necessary infrastructure to conduct these checks.
• The UK has an unprecedented opportunity, in the context of Brexit, to equip its food system to withstand these challenges, but the transition will need to be managed carefully. Any reconfiguration will first need to understand and take account of what citizens and consumers value most about the food system. Second, a UK-wide and cross-government approach will be necessary to foster a holistic, profitable, healthy and sustainable food system for all. Processing, supply chains and labelling must be transparent, and must take full advantage of new technologies available.
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