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Will Brexit lead to food shortages and rising prices?

PUBLISHED: 12:19 11 October 2019 | UPDATED: 12:19 11 October 2019

Should shoppers in Norfolk and Suffolk brace themselves for bigger bills post Brexit? 
Pic: PA

Should shoppers in Norfolk and Suffolk brace themselves for bigger bills post Brexit? Pic: PA

PA Wire/PA Images

Brexit is looming - but what impact will it have in East Anglia?

Will a no-deal Brexit cause empty shelves and soaring inflation?

The simply answer is it depends on what kind of Brexit we end up with. And there is also the issue of still not having a firm exit date, despite the political pledge of October 31.

According to the National Farmers' Union, the UK is about 60% self-sufficient in food, which means that it must import the rest. But this depends on the season - and the type of food. We do grow some tomatoes but we don't grow any oranges or lemons, for example.

Tight time frames put the best-run bureaucracies under pressure and pressure can lead to snarl-ups, confusion - and delay.

Or not, depending on how well-oiled the civil service and port functions are as they exert themselves to be ready for what may well turn out to be the biggest damp squib since January 1, 2000, when all our computers were supposed to go into a tailspin because they couldn't cope with a new number.

It also depends on two market fundamentals: supply and demand. Can the goods get to us? Are there hold-ups and delays causing shortages? And if so, does that pent-up demand drive up prices?

Sometimes, if there is a rumour of a shortage, panic buying ensues - even where there are no issues - and this puts pressure on the system.

Worse still, for perishable goods, do they become ensnared in bureaucratic knots at their point of entry and simply go off, or out of date?

Then there is the issue of storage. Before the previous Brexit deadline, firms stocked up in readiness in order to prevent potential blips in service. But in the run-up to Christmas, storage space tends to be at more of a premium, meaning in theory, less space available to store everyday goods, including foodstuffs.

If we assume that what we end up with is a kind of Brexit where our trading terms aren't aligned in the same way as they have been over the last 40 years, then even with the best organisational skills in the world, the system for checking goods through should, practically speaking, be slower.

But that really depends on whether a political decision is taken to waive checks - or pare them down, or use another mechanism to relieve pressure on the pinch-points.

If, on leaving, we revert to World Trade Organisation terms, this means that, in theory at least, things will need to be checked through at our points of entry - ports, airports and the Channel Tunnel train stations - and a series of new tariffs and non-tariffs applied.

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These have been spelt out by the government in anticipation of a no-deal Brexit, and they will be new and different. Much to the NFU's concern, while they will apply to meats and some dairy, there are a whole load of other crops, grown here, which won't get that kind of protection, such as potatoes, eggs and wheat.

A Brexit 'no-deal' would mean we wouldn't have to apply EU tariffs to food coming to us from outside of the EU, and supporters of this stance point to the cheap flood of imported foods we can then enjoy from all around the world. Such a scenario, though, strikes fear into the hearts of our farmers and food producers, who worry that it - alongside the crippling tariffs that would be attached to their crops selling into the EU in the event of a 'no-deal'- will put them out of business.

In the longer term, this wouldn't be particularly helpful to our food supply and the security of it, as farmers have strongly argued.

There may not be food shortages as such - and in fact, that element may end up being dismissed afterwards as anti-Brexit fear-mongering.

But in the longer term, on the price front, we could well end up finding food more expensive. Since 2016, when the British electorate decided to leave the European Union, the power of the pound has diminished by about a fifth. That means that we get 20% less for every pound we spend on overseas goods.

If Brexit doesn't go well, sterling could take another tumble. That may leave us unable to afford some of the foodstuffs we have become used to purchasing - whether the shelves are full or not.

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