Baroness Miller: After Brexit we face a future of much more expensive food
Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Miller writes ahead of her Lords Question on the effect of Brexit on UK food prices over the next five years.
With every month that passes the news about the cost of food gets worse. This month saw the total food import bill as the highest ever. UK food prices have reached a four year high. The price of food is one of the main factors driving inflation.
This bleak picture is set to get worse. As the LSE found the Brexit vote alone caused a rise in food prices. Now the British Retail Consortium is on record as estimating that Brexit without a deal would see food prices increasing by about 33%. The Financial Times recently identified that chokepoints in the food supply chain risk a surge of food prices. The more complicated the tariff systems the more at risk our food supply chain is. At the moment the uncertainty is enough to affect prices. And that is before global factors have seen substantial hikes and even shortages in products as varied as butter, Brazil nuts and avocados. The global factors include increased demand from countries whose populations are become more able to purchase a varied diet and climate factors that bring increasingly difficult farming conditions from drought to flood.
The very foods that we should be eating in increased quantities - fruit and vegetables - are set to become luxuries post Brexit. Pro Brexiteers say that we can just grow more in the UK. However that is undermined already as local press is already recording carrots and cauliflowers unharvested in Cornwall as EU casual workforce chooses to head for more certain and welcoming employment. The soft fruit growers of Scotland, the leeks from Lincolnshire and much else besides is under threat from lack of a workforce in the fields.
The UK already imports over 50% of its food. Suppose Brexit happens and the UK makes a real effort to reverse the declining amount of food we actually produce ourselves. With land prices as they are, the need for expensive investments to replace cheap labour and population increase we will certainly face a future of much more expensive food. And it won’t be easy. In 2015 the National Farmers’ Union published a study that showed by the mid-2040s, the country will only be able to produce enough food to feed 53% of its population.
The families on lower incomes are disproportionately affected by rising food costs. These are not just non-working families. They are those who just cannot keep up with the rise in prices which is why we have seen the dramatic use of food banks.
The Liberal Democrats have long advocated a national food strategy. We already need such a strategy in the face of the obesity and health issues sweeping the country. As the national diet becomes even bleaker if Brexit happens then a national food strategy will be essential as supply of home grown healthy food diminishes. We will be even more at the mercy of a ruthless food system that promotes the consumption of a nightmare diet based on corn syrup, palm oil and wheat.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer is a Liberal Democrat peer