Cliffs and costs: Brexit risks and opportunities

There has been much speculation about the impact of Brexit on the British food and farming industry, with the most urgent policy questions relating to the much-discussed potential ‘cliff-edge’ with any agreed transitional agreements. Disruptions to the supply chain and the supply of labour in the food and agriculture sector will need to be carefully considered as negotiations progress.

In September, Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed that The British Government is seeking a transitional agreement with the EU after Brexit in March 2019, which shall last for at least two years. During this transitional period, the UK will follow EU rules in return for maintaining access to all benefits of the single market and customs union. During this time, arrangements for a future relationship will be finalised and implemented. If approved in the negotiations, the transition period will mean that businesses will still be subject to EU regulations until at least 2021. Seen as a major climbdown from the government’s previous approach it suggests that the cabinet might no longer believe that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’.

With the government adopting a position that avoids a cliff-edge scenario, it is now time for food industry representatives to set their sights on influencing the future scenarios for both potential supply and labour challenges. In an attempt to seek clarity on the projected impacts Unite – the trade union which represents food, drink and agriculture workers – made a Freedom of Information request at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), asking for the publication of assessments of the increase in food prices in the run up to Brexit, and for the first five years afterwards. Defra denied this request, arguing that the subject matter relates to ongoing formulation and development of government policy. The lack of transparency from government is unfortunate, however the level of unknowns in a post-Brexit Britain are not surprising. Industry must therefore ensure ministers are fully engaged across the food sector and encouraged to be transparent so business can make informed decisions, as it will not be sustainable to exist in a policy vacuum for the next four years.

The House of Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee “Brexit: Trade in Food Inquiry” presents a clear opportunity to initiate evidenced-based engagement, and will provide a sound platform to feed into committee recommendations that will demand a government response. While no concrete positions or policies are in place, businesses and interest groups have a strong opportunity to secure a good Brexit deal for their industry by ensuring decision-makers are informed.

You can learn more about how to influence discussions and how Brexit will affect the food sector, as well as many other industries, at The Whitehouse Consultancy’s Project Brexit website: