THE Government must ensure its Brexit deal does not endanger Britain’s capacity to feed its people, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, has said.
Dr Smith, the president of the Rural Coalition of 12 countryside-focused organisations, warned that leaving the EU without a free trade deal could mean an increase in food prices, which would hit the poor hardest of all.
“Feeding the population is one of the primary duties of government, but at the moment we’re facing a lot of unknowns,” he told the BBC on Sunday. “We only currently produce about 60 per cent of food, which means we’re extremely vulnerable anyway.
In a letter to The Times last month, Dr Smith said that not to take seriously the question how to ensure “citizens have safe access to food” was “irresponsible”. The Government must forge a closer relationship with the farming sector to sustain Britain’s food supply over the coming years, he argued.
Although rural voters and farming communities were generally in favour of leaving the EU in last year’s referendum, a recent survey by the National Farmers’ Union has found that confidence among farmers has plummeted since. One in five reported in June that they would cut back in investment as a result of the referendum result.
The Government has promised to maintain subsidies currently provided by the EU, but there remains fears of severe shortages of essential migrant farmworkers as well as higher tariffs on imports and exports when Britain leaves.
Dr Smith said that if you added the uncertainty around Brexit to the world’s rapidly growing population, and the potential impact of climate change, food security — at home and abroad — needed to be seen as a priority.
“Much more than in the past we need to think about Brexit in the light of how we’re going to get extra food security, rather than just presume that markets are going to be able to deal with that,” he said.
As poorer families typically spent a higher proportion of their income on food, any increase in prices would disproportionately hurt the poor, Dr Smith warned.
But the Minister responsible for agriculture and food, George Eustice, said that there was no cause for alarm. “The evidence is clear on this around the world. The key drivers of food prices are energy prices and exchange rates,” he told the BBC.
“Whether we are in the EU or out of the EU with a free trade agreement, or indeed out of the EU under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, the evidence is that the impact on food prices and food supply is pretty marginal.”
Britain would never be able to grow popular foodstuffs such as coffee or rice; so importing food was inevitable, he also said. Indeed, for much of the last century Britain imported significantly more food than it did at present.
His department’s research predicted that even if Britain left the EU without a trade deal and reverted to WTO tariffs, food prices would only increase by between one and three per cent.