The report, prepared by the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex, points to a lack of clarity in the UK food or agriculture sector, characterised by the absence of a coherent governmental food policy.
Its authors believe this lack of vision and planning will adversely affect prices, quality, supply and the environment even with the prospect of a ‘soft’ Brexit.
“Since the Brexit referendum UK food and agricultural policy has been in chaos,” said lead author Professor Erik Millstone, from the Science Policy Research Unit based at the University of Sussex.
“Not only have ministers yet to develop a strategy or make decisions, they have not even grasped the issues about which urgent decisions are needed.
Unless things change rapidly, and in line with our recommendations, the UK will not only have policy chaos, the food system itself will become increasingly chaotic.”
Role of Big Food
Along with Professor Tim Lang from the Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London and Professor Terry Marsden, director of Sustainable Places Research Institute at Cardiff University, the report examines industry and government data, policies and literature on issues including production, farming, employment, quality, safety standards and the environment.
It comes up with a set of 16 key issues that the government must address in its negotiations with the EU, the authors state.
One of the issues centres on the role of Big Food.
“Brexit must not be an opportunity for further corporate capture of market power,” the report said.
“The good news is that increasing numbers of food companies now recognise the seriousness of impending crises from health, ecosystems and social divisions.
The UK public must ensure that what emerges ahead – whether the UK leaves or stays – the food system is more firmly shaped by values of justice and decency, as well as good quality.”
Other issues naturally discuss cost, both to the consumer and retail industry.
The fear is that prices, which are already rising and likely to rise more, will become more volatile, especially harming poor consumers.
More worryingly, the report identifies those who voted for Brexit are most at risk from the fallout with people on low incomes, the elderly, farmers, and people in the North of England particularly affected.
British consumers currently spend £201 billion (€229 billion) on food a year, with the entire food chain contributing about £110 billion (125 billion) gross value added (GVA).
Of this, agriculture accounts for less than £9 billion (€10.2 billion) GVA, and fisheries £0.7 billion (€0.8 billion) GVA.
Professor Lang said: “At least the UK entered World War Two with emergency plans. No-one has warned the public that a Food Brexit carries real risks of disruption to sources, prices and quality. There is solid evidence about vulnerabilities ranging from diet-related ill-health to ecosystems stress.
“The government has provided next to no details on agriculture and fisheries, and there has been total silence on the rest of the food chain where most employment, value adding and consumer choice are made. “
Referring to the government’s scant experience of food negotiations, the report makes a series of recommendations for each of the 16 key issues explored.
They call on the public, civil society and academics to put pressure on government and MPs to publish policy commitment to a low-impact, health-oriented UK food system
Other measures include the creation of a new statutory framework for UK food, which the authors term “One Nation Food.”
The authors also urge a renewed commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris climate agreement in any new food framework
They also want a creation of a new National Commission on Food and Agriculture to provide oversight and review, and to be a source of advice trusted by the British public.
“The UK’s food system already faces unprecedented challenges on environment and jobs,” said Professor Marsden. “We see real dangers that these are already being dislocated by Brexit uncertainties.”
Professor Lang added: “UK food security and sustainability are now at stake. A food system, which has an estimated three to five days of stocks, cannot just walk away from the EU, which provides us with 31% of our food. Anyone who thinks that this will be simple is ill-informed.”
Mark Jones, a UK-based food and drink solicitor at Gordons law firm agreed with the general consensus, highlighting that the Government did not seem to have a clear plan how to deal with the problem.
“Increasing inflation, a shortage or labour and increased cost of imports due to potential tariffs means that food is inevitably going to be far more expensive in the post-Brexit era," he said. "Consumers are not really paying attention to this issue at the moment but they will soon enough.
“We spend around 9% of our income on food. If that goes up to 15%, similar to Japan (14%) and France (13%) we will spend an extra £1,648 on food a year. That figure is huge for all of us but the “Just about managings (JAMs),” who the Conservatives talk about so frequently, will find that amount of additional expenditure unbearable."