Everyone’s talking about: the “B-word”

Above the Fold

3rd August 2018

The media agenda has not been short of stories on shortages across the food and drink sectors as of late: strawberry shortages, broccoli, lettuce, CO2 shortages and halloumi (who knew?) to name a few.

Recent articles reported by the BBC have in particular highlighted the shortage of strawberry pickers and other soft fruit on farms ‘largely dependent on seasonal workers from central and eastern Europe to pick their harvest’. The influx of shortages has led to bigger discussions around Brexit’s effect on wider sectors, especially retail.

The shortage of seasonal labourers left by Brexit, paired with the possibility of a ‘no deal’ Brexit outcome and unpredictable changes in climate, are adding to growing concerns that shortages will become an everyday chaos if the UK and EU fail to secure a fair deal.

The Guardian published an opinion piece on the wider food shortages ‘as EU migrants stay away’ and the supplier’s tendency to work on a ‘just in time basis’, with no scope on how to handle the knock-on Brexit effect on supplies. Ministers admitted that the UK would be making preparations to ensure supplies of food and medicines will be on hand in the event of a no-deal. Newly appointed Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, said: “We will look at this issue in the round and make sure that there’s adequate food supplies,” continuing, “it would be wrong to describe it as the government doing the stockpiling.” The Guardian highlighted the difficulty the food industry has in stock pile food as implied by Raab’s comments, and the planning needed to undergo such a project.

In another article The Guardian interviewed Alastair Brooks, a farmer based near Faversham in Kent who said: “The morning after the vote, we had a pretty depressed workforce, there were a few nasty incidents in town. People saying ‘you’ll have to go home now’. It brought out the worst in being British.”

The Sun has taken a more positive spin, publishing an article on ‘How Brits can earn almost £700 a week picking fruit’. Ministers have produced guidelines for job centre workers on how to make the new vacancies more enticing to job seekers—including incentives such as ‘good wages and a subsided house in the countryside’.

With discussions of whether the UK and EU can strike a deal to help alleviate tension amongst suppliers still pending, the cost of at-risk grocery is set to rise significantly by 30-50% as reported by The Independent. It calculated the UK’s £1.2bn soft fruit industry relies heavily on migrant labour—while farmers warn it is heading for ‘disaster’. With this all in mind, suppliers and major supermarkets will have to deal with continued rising costs and increased reliance on imports until an outcome has been finalised.

It isn’t all doom and gloom though. With a gap in the market to fill and more discussions around what the government can do to support British farmers, we could yet see the prices of fruit and veg grown in the UK become more affordable and accessible, as agriculture in the UK stabilises and job vacancies become more appealing to home UK residents. The FT recently interviewed Kim Wilkie, the farmer and well-known landscape designer, who said it is crucial for Britain to transform it’s ‘exhausted soil’. Could Britain’s exit from the EU be the turning point of an agricultural revolution?

Until decisions are made, all we can do is wait.