Bad news seems to be accumulating at a record pace. Thanks to the frequent and stark warnings about the consequences of a no-deal Brexit, so are stockpiles of food.
As many of you will have seen recently on some national news specials, there are many people who have already started stockpiling their own food supplies. Though, this isn’t confined to a few people here and there, some of Britain’s biggest supermarkets including Tesco and Marks and Spencer’s have been filling their warehouses with non-perishables since just after the Christmas rush.
Britain’s membership of the EU means that products of all kinds can pass unencumbered across European borders and into our ports such as Folkstone and Dover. Italian wine and Spanish heads of lettuce can make it to our local supermarket shelves, and onto our dinner plates, all in the quick and convenient manner to which we’ve become accustomed.
However, there are concerns that, should Britain leave without a deal in October (or sometime after), food supply problems could occur as different custom arrangements between Britain and the EU cause delays at ports. Justin King, the former chief executive of Sainsbury’s, said recently said that gaps will appear on supermarket shelves within a week, noting that “something between 30 and 40 per cent of our produce at that time of the year is coming from the European Union.”
However, the availability of food on our supermarket shelves could have knock-on effects on another food crisis we are already facing. The number of Britons relying on food banks to meet their needs has been rapidly increasing in recent years. The Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest network of food banks, gave out 1.6 million emergency food packages in the year ending this March. This was a 19% rise from 2018. So, could a no-deal withdrawal from the European Union further escalate the food supply problem for some of Britain’s most vulnerable households?
If the predications are true and, in an event of no-deal, there is a serious disruption to food supplies coming in and stockpiling by households and businesses meaning fewer donations towards food banks, the country’s most in need families could seriously suffer.
Furthermore, a falling pound, along with new tariffs on imported food, will drive the price of a weekly shop by up to 10%, according to Bank of England governor Mark Carney, pushing already stretched family budgets beyond their limits. A rise in unemployment in the event of no-deal has also been forecasted by some, suggesting that this will increase the number of people in need of charitable help.
Food banks, operating on charitable donations and volunteer manpower, are engaged in a desperate battle to meet existing needs. It’s unclear how they could cope with the levels of poverty that would follow even a fraction of these predicted economic consequences of no-deal.
“The Trussell Trust does not have the facilities to centrally stockpile food supplies, and so plans to shift supplies around its network of some 1,200 food banks.
“We’re giving Brexit guidance to food banks – but there’s a limit to how much we can prepare for and mitigate its consequences,” said Garry Lemon, the Trussell Trust’s director of policy, external affairs and research. The responsibility to prevent more people being pulled into poverty lies with our Government. We cannot rely on support driven by volunteers and food donations to pick up the pieces, particularly in the event of no-deal.”
Last month Sustain, a group representing the Trussell Trust and other organisations in the food aid sector, has called on the government to establish a no-deal hardship fund to administer cash grants to society’s most vulnerable. There has been no response to their request as yet.
For the hundreds of independent food banks, which operate in schools, community centres and churches around the country, resources are even more scarce and there has been little time to plan. When the government announced £2.1bn funding to bolster preparations for no deal, Chancellor Sajid Javid said the money “will ensure we are ready to leave on 31 October — deal or no deal.”
The many families in Britain already finding it difficult to put food on the table will wonder how far that “we” stretches. In a statement responding to the Moorlander, the Government said: “The Government is preparing for every eventuality in the negotiations and believes that we will avoid a situation where we leave with no deal. In any event, there would continue to be an adequate supply of food and there are no plans to stockpile food.
‘The UK has excellent levels of food security and we receive our food from a range of sources including from strong domestic production and overseas imports. This will continue to be the case after the UK leaves the EU with continued access to a range of different products.
‘The Government has very well established means of working with the food and drink industry to minimise disruption to consumers. The Food Chain Emergency Liaison Group provides a forum for discussion between industry and government on food security issues and there is regular contact with the food industry on the progress of the negotiations more generally. Over £6.3 billion has been allocated in preparations for leaving the bloc and this will ensure that the right legal and operational arrangements are in place ahead of the UK’s exit.”
However, ministers have refused to disclose details about their discussions with local authorities and the food industry over possible disruptions to food supplies in a no-deal Brexit, arguing the information could damage negotiations with the EU.
The ruling, in which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) argued there was “a strong public interest” in keeping the information secret, follows the release of documents outlining the government’s planning assumptions for its no-deal Brexit preparation plan, called Operation Yellowhammer. A Freedom of Information request from Green MP Caroline Lucas sought access to Defra’s discussions about food supplies and prices in the event of a no-deal Brexit, with food industry bodies as well as local resilience forums, which group together councils, emergency services, the NHS and others to plan responses to localised disorder and emergencies.
It also asked for more general information about planning assumptions over food supplies and prices if no deal happened, as well as representations made by food industry groups and organisation such as charities and food banks. In its response, Defra confirmed it held the information, but said it would not release it on public interest grounds, arguing: “At this stage in our negotiations with the EU it is of vital importance that the government only release information, and at the appropriate time, when it is unlikely to impact those negotiations,” the reply said.
Lucas said the public had “every right to know what ministers know about disruption to food supplies and prices in the event of a no-deal Brexit”. She said: “Yet this government is shamefully withholding this basic information, whilst their attempted reassurances directly contradict what the food industry itself is saying.
‘We are being kept in the dark about the availability of food in less than two months’ time so Boris Johnson can continue his sham negotiations with Brussels. It is hard to think of anything more reckless and irresponsible: Boris Johnson’s play-acting over a Brexit deal is being put ahead of people’s right to know what food might be available for them, their families and their communities.”
Kate Dalmeny, who heads Sustain, a food and farming campaign that has worked with charities and others over the possible impact of no deal, said: “We are increasingly worried that a no-deal Brexit would be disastrous for millions of people on low incomes, who would struggle with predicted food price rises of up to 10%, with no means to stockpile food.”
A Defra spokeswoman said: “We already have a highly resilient food supply chain, and a food industry that is well versed in dealing with scenarios that can impact food supply. Half of the food we eat is produced right here in the UK and consumers will continue to have access to a wide range of high-quality food.
‘We are meeting regularly with the industry to make sure they are fully prepared for leaving the EU on 31st October,” she added.