Food

The EU Made British Food Sexy. Will Brexit Bring Boring Back?

A year after the divisive vote, the U.K. faces a decidely less delicious future. by Carla Passino

June 23, 2017

Much like the food he grows, 66-year-old John Merry is a forthright, no-nonsense man, keeping sheep and raising wheat, barley, rapeseed, and beans on 1,000 acres in England’s East Midlands. During his decades in the business, he has seen dozens of dramatic ups and downs — not least the devastating outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that caused the death of 10 million animals in 2001 — so he’s hardly prone to hysteria. Yet just a year after the U.K. voted to leave the European Union, he thinks Brexit may radically change the way Brits farm and eat.

Although British food has long had a reputation for being “boring, bland, and boiled” — at least according to notoriously adventurous eater Andrew Zimmern — U.K. fare now more than holds its own against Europe’s sexiest cuisines. The quality of local ingredients is now among the highest in the world, and British food culture has fueled the rise of celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver.

All this may be poised to change following British Prime Minister Theresa May’s January decision to close the door on 44 years of the “single market” — an agreement that, among other things, allowed goods, including food, to pass from EU country to EU country without incurring tariffs or border checks. Brexit also means waving goodbye to European quality logos such as the Protected Denomination of Origin, which has helped promote select agricultural products to a market of over 500 million people, and to the Common Agricultural Policy, which has provided substantial financial support to farmers, with direct payments totaling about $3.3 billion in 2015. A briefing paper compiled by the British House of Commons revealed that farming income in the U.K. rose by the equivalent of about $2.5 billion (in today’s money) in 1973 thanks, at least in part, to the country’s entry into the EU (then called the European Community).

The cost of a bottle of wine is now at an all-time high.

Meanwhile, British diners have, until now, been able to enjoy a wide range of reasonably priced food coming from France, Italy, and Spain. The implications of losing the single market could be massive for consumers: The U.K. imports nearly half of all the food it eats, according to the 2015 statistics pocketbook by the British Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs. More than a quarter of it comes from the EU and would therefore be directly affected by the introduction of border controls and barriers, but even products that come from elsewhere could become more expensive if the pound, which has lost value against the dollar since the Brexit vote in June 2016, continues to depreciate. Take fruit and vegetables, for example. The U.K.’s fruit self-sufficiency was a meager 11% in 2014 as consumer tastes have shifted toward more exotic produce, such as avocado, mango, and pineapple, while imports of vegetables like sweet peppers and lettuce rose by more than 500% between 1990 and 2014. So a sustained hike in import prices may either reduce overall consumption of fruit and vegetables or possibly compel people to switch to a less varied diet.

With so much at stake, many who voted to leave the EU, including farmers, hoped to maintain free access to the European market. The U.K. wouldn’t be the first to do so: A few non-EU countries do this very successfully, although they must comply with a number of rules. For example, both Norway and Iceland trade freely with the bloc and, in exchange, make a contribution to the EU budget and meet European standards and regulations, including the controversial free movement of labor.

This so-called “Norway model” was widely discussed in the U.K. in the aftermath of the Brexit vote until May declared the British government would instead seek a bespoke free-trade agreement with the bloc, even suggesting that no deal at all would be preferable to a bad one. And although May’s government is now weaker after she failed to secure an outright majority in the British general election on June 8, 2017, she seems determined to forge ahead with her vision for Brexit.

Sky-High Prices, Delayed Deliveries, And Hollow Chocolate

May’s approach, however, clashes with the views of the other European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been firm in stating that the U.K. would not be able to cherry-pick market-access terms.

“Things are not starting smoothly,” Merry laments. “I can see tariffs going on stuff that’s exported.”

This likely impasse on the single market could threaten the livelihood of farmers like 49-year-old Minette Batters, a beef farmer from the Southwest of England who is widely regarded as the most powerful woman in British agriculture.

She didn’t always carry so much clout. The Cordon Bleu-trained chef and mother to teenage twins grew up on a farm. But her parents were tenants, rather than owners, so with no land to inherit, she had to build her farming career from scratch. After renting a rundown farm in 1998, she quickly turned it into a successful business, producing premium beef from more than 300 cattle and hosting country weddings and corporate events. Then, in 2014, Batters made history when she became the first woman ever elected deputy president of the National Farmers Union, the U.K.’s largest farming organization, which represents the interests of more than 55,000 farmers across the country and negotiates with political leaders on their behalf. Among others, Batters sits on the London Food Board, which advises the city’s mayor on food policies.

“For me personally — and [for] livestock farmers, in general — potentially not having access to the EU market will be life-changing,” Batters says. “It is absolutely vital because we have been trading tax-free with the EU for many years. It’s the proximity, really, the fact they are very close to us, 500 million people on our doorstep. It has worked well for Europe, it has worked well for our consumers, and it has worked well for our farmers.”

If no agreement is reached by the end of March 2019, the U.K. and the EU can trade under World Trade Organization rules, a move that both Batters and experts such as professor Ralph Early, head of the Department of Food Science and Agri-Food Supply Chain Management at Harper Adams University, in Edgmond, Shropshire, believe could be devastating. “If we crash out of the EU and operate under WTO rules, then tariffs will inhibit the export of many U.K. agricultural and manufactured food products, eventually killing off farm and food businesses,” says Early, a vocal critic of Brexit. 

Imports like the Spanish lettuce, Dutch tomatoes, and French grapes that British families have become accustomed to eating would suffer just as much. Rabobank, a Dutch company that provides financial services to the agri-food sector, estimates that prices of imported fruit, vegetables, and olive oil could rise by 8% because of rising import costs and border delays. This would add extra pressure on prices, which have already been rising since the pound started falling in value last June. In May, food inflation saw its highest rise since 2014, at 1.4%, according to the British Retail Consortium-Nielsen shop price index. Similarly, the cost of a bottle of wine is now at an all-time high, according to the British Wine and Spirit Trade Association, which expects prices to continue rising this year.

We have had good blokes, and the blokes have died or retired, and we are finding it bloody hard to replace them.

In a move that’s perhaps even more shocking for the British public, some European favorites have become visibly “lighter.” For example, Toblerone, which is made with Swiss chocolate by U.S.-owned Mondelez International, decided to reduce the weight of two of the bars it sells in the U.K. “Like many other companies, we are experiencing higher costs for numerous ingredients,” they wrote in a statement on the Toblerone Facebook page. “We carry these costs for as long as possible, but to ensure Toblerone remains on-shelf, is affordable and retains the triangular shape, we have had to reduce the weight.”

It’s not just local food that is facing the Brexit challenge — the impact on the British dining scene is even stronger. 50-year-old restaurateur Bele Weiss is experiencing this firsthand. An outspoken, energetic opponent of Brexit, Weiss moved to the U.K. from her native Germany in 1997. 12 years ago, she opened Stein’s, a riverside restaurant, bar, and beer garden in the leafy London suburb of Richmond-upon-Thames, and later went on to launch a second branch in nearby Kingston-upon-Thames. With their menus full of Bavarian staples — from spätzle and schnitzel to Munich sausages and wheat beer — Weiss’ restaurants have helped popularize German cuisine in London. But serving up a good German meal looks increasingly tricky.

“We are importing 80% of what we sell because it’s supposed to be authentic Bavarian German things, so beer, wine, sausages, sauerkraut, everything, even down to the rolls is imported,” says Weiss. Since last June, her cost of food and transport have gone up significantly because the pound has fallen — but at least imports remain duty-free. If trade with the EU defaults to WTO rules, the introduction of steep tariffs could prove crippling. “On meat, I believe [the tariff] is 40%,” worries Weiss.

Above all, though, she is concerned about the border checks. “I have got experience with that on our wine deliveries, where we have got to pay alcohol duty. Almost every single wine delivery takes almost four weeks to get here — there’s always something that goes wrong along the way. Now, with the sausages, they come vacuum-packed and they last between a week and two weeks. If they get stuck at the border, that’s my main concern. It’ll make supply very unsafe.”

She explains that neither the transport companies nor the border staff are ready for the enormous workload that would pile up if checks were introduced on European foodstuff. “I have listened to a Select Committee in Parliament and there were transport experts describing what would happen if there was no [U.K.-EU] deal. The whole of the M2 [highway] from here to [the border at] Dover would become a car park.”

For this reason, Weiss is having to rethink her entire supply chain: “We are talking to another German who may want to open a German brewery. We might have to get a butcher and make our own sausages — British butchers have tried to offer us German sausages but they don’t taste the same. But then we are forced to open a butchery, which we never wanted to do.”

Although her restaurants are more dependent on imports than most, Weiss believes the entire British dining industry will be affected: “If you look around in this area, almost every shop is importing something.”

In particular, she thinks the food scene in the British countryside, which has seen new cuisines break in only relatively recently, will experience a decline if providing a global dining experience becomes too expensive. In London, which has a large number of relatively affluent residents, this is unlikely to happen, but the public may eventually have to contend with higher restaurant bills. “We will probably have to raise the prices,” Weiss admits. “We will have to see how we can survive.”

Batters notes that Brexit may not be as crippling on the collective British pocketbook as people fear, since local growers could step in and fill some of the gaps created by rising import costs. “Horticulture is an area where we have big potential,” she explains. “There is a huge opportunity to grow far more fruit and vegetables in this country.”

Without Human Workers, A Robot Revolution

However, Batters worries that farmers won’t be able to capitalize on these possible openings in the future because they won’t have enough people to work in the fields. With an unemployment rate of just 4.6%, the U.K. is close to full employment, so the country has become increasingly reliant on immigrants to fill vacancies in areas such as wait-staffing, produce picking, food packing, and meat processing.

“In all the years we have been open, we have found maybe three British that wanted to work for us, so we can’t replace [EU staff] with British people,” reveals Weiss. “People don’t want to do that work — working weekends, working evenings — and it’s physically quite hard and may not have the prestige [they are looking for].”

The restaurant and hotel sectors need about 62,000 new EU immigrants every year to keep going and grow, according to a report produced by KPMG for the British Hospitality Association. Meanwhile, British agriculture employs more than 22,000 EU nationals, and that’s not including seasonal workers, most of whom come from countries within the bloc.

In towns like Boston, Lincolnshire — one of the U.K.’s agricultural capitals — more than 10% of the local population are immigrants from Eastern Europe. Baltic delis stand a stone’s throw away from traditional pubs and fish-and-chip shops, and the Polish community even has its own newspaper. But many in Britain feel overwhelmed by immigration, which they feel puts pressure on schools and services — there’s no doubt that desire to limit the number of workers coming in from the EU played an important part in the country’s decision to vote Leave.

“There is this opportunity for us to be pushing production, but if we can’t have access to a competent workforce, that’s going to be compromised,” cautions Batters.

Merry points out that a shortage of labor is not a new problem in the U.K. “We have had good blokes, and the blokes have died or retired, and we are finding it bloody hard to replace them.” Farms are so keen to attract skilled workers, such as crop specialists, that they will throw in all kinds of benefits: “If you read the Farmers Weekly, there’s page after page after page of people wanting a man who can do spraying [of crops with chemicals] and all the rest of it. They can earn £40,000 [$49,500] a year and get a free house. And if the wife is [into horses], the big estates will give him a farmhouse with a paddock and a few stables — they’re that desperate. Proper labor is real scarce.”

Soon, though, it could be even scarcer. With the Brexit-minded British government determined to reduce net migration into the U.K. to less than 100,000 (from the current level of 248,000), many farmers are scratching their heads, wondering just who is going to harvest their zucchini or pick their strawberries. A new report from the U.K. body British Summer Fruits predicts strawberry prices to rise by as much as 50%

Representatives from the farming, food, and dining sectors have all voiced their needs to the government. Regardless of whether they are heard, though, European immigrants are already beginning to shun the U.K. as they are put off by a combination of factors: anti-immigrant sentiment, which also resulted in a rise in hate crimes immediately after last year’s referendum; the weakening pound, which means working in the U.K. is less appealing for people who have to support a family abroad; and the uncertainty over the future status of EU nationals, which is subject to negotiation between the British government and European institutions (although the British prime minister recently offered to guarantee the rights of those who had been living and working in the U.K. for at least five years).

“We used to have two or three applications per week without even asking, and now we get nothing. We have to look for people,” Weiss says of her restaurants. Batters reports the same from the farming front. “We have already seen a big shortfall of people wanting to come here. We don’t know the impact [of leaving the EU until] our seasonal produce starts to be harvested. We are very concerned about that.”

For young farmers, Brexit is a brilliant opportunity to get a foot on the ladder.

The British government has tried to assuage these worries by pitching technology as a solution to the labor shortage — the advent of robotic milkers, automated feeders, and, in the pipeline, self-driving tractors can dramatically reduce the need for human input — and by painting the future of the U.K. as a global free-trade powerhouse that can thrive outside the single market.

But Merry doesn’t completely buy the technology argument. “You still need some infantry. They talk about robot tractors and all the rest of it, but you still need men on the ground to do jobs — and we can’t find the men.”

Others believe that robots could possibly provide a solution in a few years’ time, but not in the short term. For example, Harry Hall, who grows berries across seven farms in the South of England and supplies three leading British supermarkets, told the National Farmers Union conference last February that fruit-picking robots are hugely expensive yet harvest at only a third of the speed of a human worker (although they could, of course, pick fruit all day and all night). He would invest in them if the British government were to close the doors to foreign labor — but it would cost him roughly $6.3 million. That’s a prohibitive sum for many farmers with smaller businesses than Hall’s. And in industries where human interaction is important, such as restaurants, technology provides no answer to the staff shortages looming large on the horizon.

Hope For Young Farmers

As for trade, the prospect of Brexit’s negative ramifications has sparked fears among British farmers and food safety advocates alike. Although there are obvious advantages to tapping into vast markets like the United States — such as the lucrative opportunity to sell British beef, cheese, and lamb to more than 300 million Americans — the risks of trading freely with a country of a vastly larger size and different regulatory framework could be enormous. British agriculture, which generally operates on a much smaller scale and higher cost base than many of its foreign counterparts, could be easily undercut by cheaper imports.

“I’m putting bulls to cows this June that will calve in 2018. That beef won’t be on the shelves until 2019, and I don’t know whether I’ll be competing against Argentinian beef or Irish,” explains Batters. “So, for me, there is huge uncertainty and very little time to plan — [this] makes it difficult to budget and make the necessary decisions.”

A flood of cheaper imports would prove particularly devastating for smaller farmers at a time when agriculture may also see a reduction in public support. The British government has promised to honor the level of funding currently provided by the EU until 2020, but after that, everything is up for discussion. 

“I think that it’s almost inevitable that Brexit and a free-trade economy, with the loss of farm subsidies, will bring an end to small family farms in the U.K.,” says Early.

Merry believes it’ll come down to survival of the fittest. He reflects on the time he was working in New Zealand in 1984 when the local government removed financial support to farmers virtually overnight: “They knocked subsidies on the head and the price of a fat lamb dropped from NZ$23 to NZ$5 [about $16.5 to $3.5 in today’s money]. All the young blokes who had big mortgages [that they could no longer afford] walked away and left the farms, and the ones who were more established were all right. It depends on how well established you are. [For] the tenant farmers, if times get hard, there won’t be enough money to make a living out of the land.”

For Merry, the silver lining is if British farming goes downhill for a few years, it could pave the way for young people to enter agriculture once rent and land prices become more affordable.

James Wright agrees. A bold, entrepreneurial farmer in his 20s, Wright grows barley and wheat and rears pigs, cattle, and sheep across 200 acres in the South of England. Currently, he’s a share farmer, meaning he provides the labor and splits the business risks with the farm’s landowners — but the aftermath of Brexit may offer Wright a chance to buy a farm of his own.

“The farm I’m share-farming now is £3.4 million [$4.2 million]. How can I afford a £3.4-million farm? I can’t. For me, if half the farmers in the U.K. go out of business, there could be an opportunity. That’s horrible to say, but for young farmers, Brexit is a brilliant opportunity to get a foot on the ladder — and that’s sad. I find that sad; I’m not a monster.”

If too many small farms fold, there will be implications for the British countryside, too. “A range of farm sizes is what has produced the beautiful countryside we have now,” says Belinda Gordon, head of government affairs at the Campaign to Protect Rural England and a passionate champion of Britain’s nature. “There’s a risk that if you [move toward] mega-farms, all becomes homogenous. We may have very efficient food production, but we will have lost the British scenery.”

Double Standards On Food Safety 

This concern resonates with Vicki Hird, the farming campaign coordinator for Sustain, an alliance of 100 public-interest organizations. Hird points out that beyond threatening small farms, deals with countries like the U.S., where food safety regulations are much looser than in the U.K. — and look to be even further relaxed under the Trump administration — would also put enormous pressure on British food safety standards.

The U.K., along with the rest of the EU, currently has some of the world’s most stringent bio-sanitary, sustainability, animal welfare, and environmental criteria when it comes to food, both imported and exported. It bans growth hormones, requires strict labeling for genetically modified organisms, and restricts or forbids the use of many drugs, pesticides, and chemicals that are common in America. Take chicken, for example: In the U.S., chicken meat is generally washed in chlorinated water to ensure it’s safe for consumption. This practice is not allowed in the EU — instead, farms adopt a series of sanitary measures to prevent contamination at every step of the chain, from field to plate.

“There is [concern] that the U.K. government will weaken farm and food rules and put many farm businesses in jeopardy in order to open trade deals and achieve cheaper prices at the expense of the environment, farm businesses, and consumers,” Hird says.

Some public figures have already broached the subject of deregulation, particularly with regards to GMOs. This, says Early, “will be disastrous for our small island and its fragile ecology where farms and nature are one and the same. There will be tensions between farming for food productivity and protection of the environment and, in the end, I see the biotechnology corporations winning.”

Even some farmers have mentioned relaxing food safety standards as a way to level the playing field with foreign imports, but Wright, who prides himself on never selling an unhappy animal, is incensed at the very idea.

“I don’t want antibiotic feed, I don’t want GMO. I like the way I farm,” he thunders. “I think it’s good for the environment and for the consumer. That’s what we should be standing up for. American farming is great. They do fantastic things — they just farm to completely different standards than what we farm to.”

Batters’ greatest fear is that British farmers will have to contend with double standards — higher for homegrown produce but lower for imports: “We’d still have the same regulation and [we’d be] flooded with [cheaper] imported products.”

Consumer surveys show that the majority of the British public trusts local food far more than imports, so the country’s strict production criteria could become a positive differentiating point in the future. “In the right place and with the right skills, it makes sense to find a niche market, add value, and reduce food miles,” says Ian Bailey, director of rural research at Savills, a real estate consultancy that also provides farm management advice. “It won’t suit everyone, but the ‘buy British’ ethos is strong, so capitalizing on that will be an opportunity.”

Britain’s New Deal

With Brexit giving the British government the chance to reshape agricultural policy around national interest, public funding could also be redirected to support this kind of higher-margin, higher-quality produce, alongside sustainable and eco-friendly initiatives. “It’s a huge opportunity to have a bespoke policy that fits the U.K., that is a new deal for British agriculture,” Batters says. She’d like to see measures that reward farm productivity, reduce the impact of agricultural diseases, contribute to protecting farmers from bad weather and volatile prices, and help improve the environment.

For Wright, this possibility of reforming funding is invigorating. He hopes to see a new scheme that supports innovation and environmental stewardship and paves the road toward farm ownership. “I want to see a government-backed mortgage for farmers. I can keep on dreaming about that, though!”

What everyone can agree on is that much hinges on the choices the British government will make when it negotiates with the EU during the next 18 months and when it redesigns its food policies after the country’s exit from the bloc is completed. However, Gordon, Wright, and Batters alike think that the British public has a large role to play, too. “If the British consumer wants to see a thriving farming industry, he needs to pay for it, and that involves choosing to buy British, even when it’s not the cheapest,” says Wright.

Merry, though, remains worried: “I’m not sure,” he says. “We are looking into a crystal ball that’s cloudy.”

Illustration by Sophy Hollington

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