Brexit food shortages are not inevitable – keep calm and don’t panic buy

With no Brexit deal in place and March 29 fast approaching, fears are growing that the UK will struggle to maintain supplies of food currently sourced from the EU.

Wednesday, 13th February 2019, 12:28 pm
Updated Wednesday, 20th February 2019, 7:57 am
Keep calm and don't panic buy

A company producing £295 “Brexit boxes” containing freeze-dried food, a water filter and fire-starting gel, recently said it has sold 600, showing that this issue is close to the hearts (and stomachs) of the British public. But, clever marketing tricks aside, it is worth emphasising that doomsday scenario shortages are not inevitable.

Britain’s food supplies are heavily linked to trade with the EU. The latest figures from the UK government suggest that, on average, the EU supplies 30% of all food consumed in the UK and there is concern that customs delays in the event of a no-deal Brexit would delay deliveries to the UK. Supermarkets rely on very frequent deliveries and hold limited reserves so there is an issue here.

As Britain produces half of the food it consumes and because trade of food with the EU will hardly stop overnight on March 29, it is tempting to think that food shortages are nothing more than scaremongering. But the situation is slightly more complex than it initially seems. For example, while the UK does produce 50% of its own food, this figure is an average. For certain goods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, the actual figure is nearer to just 25%. This means the UK is much more dependent on fresh fruit and vegetable imports from the EU than other food stuffs.

Keep calm and don't panic buy

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Plus, while Brexit is unlikely to stop trade with the EU, a no-deal scenario will likely result in a default to World Trade Organization rules. This means tariffs would need to be paid. To ensure compliance, food would need to be checked at the ports.

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A recent study by researchers at Imperial College London found that just two extra minutes spent checking each vehicle could translate to jams of up to 29 miles. At peak times, Kent could see nearly five hours of traffic delays. For short shelf-life foods like fruit and vegetables, this could be catastrophic.

Another important consideration is the practical configuration of UK ports. A significant proportion of the UK’s food imports from the EU come in through channel ports such as Dover and Felixstowe. These use ferries designed for food to be carried in trucks which use a “roll-on, roll-off” system at either side. Much of the UK’s existing international shipping, by comparison, comes in on crates which use a “load-on, load-off” system.

The two systems are not readily interchangeable meaning that the UK could not simply divert shipping from the EU to its west coast ports to reduce inspection queues. Nor could it rapidly increase food deliveries from non-EU countries without significant expansion work and also careful tariff negotiation to prevent the same queues occurring there too.

It is therefore very likely that a no-deal Brexit scenario would result in some initial delays. Nonetheless there are ways that the UK can prepare to stop these hold ups turning into actual shortages of food:

1. Prioritise

While delays at ports are likely to be inevitable in a no-deal scenario, for certain products, like dried food and store cupboard staples that don’t need refrigeration, they pose no threat to the quality of the food. This means it should be possible to shortlist and streamline the process for top priority foods like fresh fruit and vegetables and meats so that they get through ahead of the queues.

The employment of an extra 8,000 inspectors by HMRC in anticipation of Brexit should help facilitate this process.

2. Contingency planning

Research I’ve carried out has shown that many of the large food retailers have decades of experience in dealing with unexpected disruptions and will have plans in place to minimise them. These include stockpiling but also the capacity to fly in goods by air freight.

This last option, while expensive and still liable for tariffs, would help to temporarily reduce dependency on channel ports. So there is reason to be confident that short-term price spikes passed on to consumers are more likely than large-scale shortages.

3. Avoid panic buying

If the current trend for Brexit boxes is anything to go by, it is likely that consumers will rush to stock up on emergency foods such as tinned goods and bottled drinks in the build-up to March 29, in lieu of a Brexit deal. Ironically, these products are also the least likely to suffer from a lengthened border check as they will not spoil. In fact, it is only panic buying that will cause any kind of disruption.

It is important to remember that, ultimately, while delays are likely in the event of a no-deal Brexit, they will be temporary and only pose a risk for certain goods with a short shelf life. Some panic buying might be inevitable, but in worst case scenarios this will result in shops running out of one item but still having similar alternatives to choose from.

Research by Jamie Stone, Research Associate at the Centre for Sustainable Manufacturing and Recycling Technologies (SMART), Loughborough University. Originally published on The Conversation