What does Brexit mean for food prices?

Tariffs are part of the picture but as citizens we need to demand our politicians do so much more to make sure we have sustainable and affordable food.

There has been much talk of late about the price of food. With Brexit meaning a falling pound and possible food shortages and, more fundamentally, climate change affecting farming globally, debate is growing about possible price spikes.

The price of food reflects many things but rarely the real costs of sustainable production, which causes many problems for farmers and our environment. But for imports, the price may also reflect the burden of a ‘tariff’ – or tax – paid at the official point of entry to the country or economic bloc like the EU. Food companies sometimes pass that extra cost down to us, the consumers. And as we teeter on the brink of Brexit, this has now become a big thing we need to get to grips with.

Tariffs could increase the price of food but will potentially protect some of our UK farmers from unfair competition from overseas producers, who may have lower labour costs, and lower standards of food safety, environmental or animal welfare.  As part of the EU, we currently have complex tariffs on many food imports – we vary the tariff levels for all sorts of reasons and import food with either no tariff at all, low or high tariffs. Tariffs on horticulture or lamb can vary seasonably for instance, as they are based on the value of the items, which varies according to availability.  

When we leave we can choose our tariff rates, but so can our competitors, so the risk of ‘tit for tat’ tariffs wars is high. Some of the fiercest debate comes from raw materials, such as grains or oils, as global food corporations want the cheapest raw materials they can buy, so they tend to be against any tariffs at all.

Preferably, using tariffs should be about what we want to nurture. We may well need to impose tariffs to protect our beef producers, for instance, as it costs so much more to produce beef here than, say the US. But what about strawberries, or oats, and the biggest question of all: who ultimately pays?

It is always worth considering who really gets the bulk of the price you pay for your food. UK farmers get about eight per cent of the pot of money spent on food, compared to 26 per cent going to the manufacturers like Coca Cola, Findus and Associated British Foods.   A recent Farmers Weekly analysis showed farm profits have dropped 43 per cent since 1973 since we joined the EU, while global analysis suggests food workers get a pitiful return for their labours in supplying us. An upcoming report we are launching at Sustain, Super Market Failure, will suggest this poor distribution of the food pound needs urgent attention. Farmers, workers, farm animals, the environment and even consumers are all losers when food pricing is not fair.

So, governments need to sort out much, much more to ensure prices reflect the true ethical and environmental costs of production. They need to regulate to make costs transparent and ensure that supply chains are fair. They must guarantee vulnerable consumers have decent incomes and safety nets so they can eat well, and they should ensure everyone can choose a diet without being manipulated by greedy junk food promoters.

Tariffs are part of the picture but as citizens we need to demand our politicians do so much more. And as consumers we can choose wisely. Getting your food from as close to the farmer or grower as possible has to be a good thing, and the more farmers who can collaborate and coordinate to sell more directly or via simpler chains, the better.


Leave a Reply

  1. A new and interesting take on the confusion that is Brexit. How the general public is supposed to collate and digest this stuff is a mystery. We are constantly being fed info only supplied by those with a financial interest in the status quo as is but not openly given options on what might be. Riverford has become a new point of information for me and I am grateful for that. Keep doing what you do. I am healthier and happier for it.

    1. The first response to Vicki Herd’s pertinent piece about Brexit and food by 1954@counting is spot on. But it’s not only those with a financial interest who stay silent about the real situation we’re facing in the world. Research – which means ‘digging deeper’, whether in journalism or farming – is rarely encouraged in a climate where money rules. And just as unrealistic deadlines kill most stories, they kill the opportunity to dig deeper about cause and effect in every area of life.

      Look at the mess that the short term view has brought to Brexit. Most journalists – I’m one – have no idea what’s really going on. We spread confusion by running with the first decent quote or most ‘convenient truth’, under terrific pressure to move on to the next story.

      In 1979, I was fired – quite nicely – as Health Writer for a Sunday newspaper in Australia. Why? I took too long with the research. So, I went underground.

      To move forward, we need to move back for a broader view of life. The Magna Carta is not much considered these days but part of it, ‘The Charter of the Forest’ is especially relevant now.

      “The forest was no primitive wilderness. It had been carefully developed over generations, maintained in common, its riches available to all, and preserved for future generations – practices found today primarily in traditional societies that are under threat throughout the world. “ – Noam Chomsky .

      Guy Watson-Singh’s views – in juxtaposition to input such as Chomsky’s and a fair whack of ‘science fiction’ – have encouraged me to begin a re-examination of most things in life, especially my relationship with food. Riverford, thanks to you all.
      Magna Carta, Its Fate, and Ours: The Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest, pp84-86, Who Rules the World? Reframings, Noam Chomsky.
      Election: A Booker Thriller (Capstone Conspiracy, Books 1-3), Brandt Legg.


In case you missed it

Receive the Digital Digest

Food, Farming, Fairness, every Friday.

Learn more

About us

Find out more about Wicked Leeks and our publisher, organic veg box company Riverford.

Learn more