Ten Ways Brexit is Affecting Scotland's Food Supply
A hard Brexit added to a pandemic and climate change is likely to increase prices
A hard Brexit combined with a global pandemic is affecting the food supply in Scotland. There are obvious issues with the range and quality of produce available in many shops. I went into five supermarkets in Edinburgh this weekend - all had obvious gaps. Staff confirmed delays are continually late, they are told to ‘overface’ - spread merchandise across displays, and that some customers seem upset and frustrated.
Behind the scenes, suppliers are working very hard to ensure food gets to consumers - but delays are particularly problematic for delicate fruit and vegetables and fresh food such as meat and fish.
“This is like riding a bike that has been left out in the rain for 2 years, it is creaking, all the gears are juddering, we are trying our hardest to cycle it but it keeps jamming. All of this used to be so easy - now we have to pour all our energy into standing still,” Garth Gullland from Glasgow’s Roots and Fruits said.
Mitigating the issues caused by Brexit is likely to prove expensive - underlying commodity price increases caused by the pandemic and climate change are adding to upward price pressure.
Here are some key issues
1 The food supply is very dependent on the EU
Over the last 40 years or so the food chains across the EU have become intertwined. Britain imports most of the fruit and veg we eat from the EU - it is cheaper to grow easy-peelers in Spain than in the UK. Many other food categories also depend heavily on EU imports.
2 It is not easy to replace EU items with locally grown ones
Scotland doesn’t grow the amount or variety of things like salad greens and fruit that we have grown accustomed to eating. Many larger Scottish farmers have gone into high-value, low labour crops like rapeseed. Even with things that we do produce like cheese, it is not easy to switch the supply chain overnight - if you are exporting high-value cheese, switching the balance means you have cheese on your hands, but it is expensive cheese.
3 There is no obvious alternative to the EU for imports
Thanks to a combination of climate change and the pandemic, food supply chains have been interrupted across the world. It is not as if there is an obvious source of cheap food sitting waiting for the UK to come and buy it. The UK did a trade deal with Australia - but that country is coming through a long drought, they can also export easily to China, they won’t be sending a lot of food to the UK in the short term.
4 Existing EU suppliers are selling their goods elsewhere
On an individual level, people who import high-end food from the EU to sell to Scottish consumers are already losing suppliers.
Giovanna Eusebi of Eusebi’s deli in Glasgow’s West End said: “ I am finding that I am losing some of my suppliers in Italy. These are small family owned businesses I have worked with for years and they can’t support the admin costs of the paperwork since Brexit. It is sad.”
That is happening in big markets too - the main source of imported beef for the UK is Ireland which is a massive beef exporter - the UK brings in more Irish beef than Scotland produces. Irish producers are selling 16% more to the EU now than last year and 5% less to the UK. The UK already pays more than the EU for beef - but that differential may have to increase.
5 Regulation of imports - and more is on the way
Before Brexit, there was no paperwork associated with importing fresh food from the EU.
Now greengrocer Francesco Costino has 77 pages of customs declarations to check: “My agent completes them but I am legally responsible for ensuring they are accurate”.
That is even though Britain decided not to impose full import controls immediately after Brexit. But regulation of animal products is due to start on October 1, plants will be on January 1. That is likely to cause more issues and delays.
6 A shortage of staff in meat processing plants
Many of Scotland’s meat processing plants were very dependent on European staff. They left and it is currently proving difficult to replace them. This is a tough, low-paid job and it is not likely to be easy to fill these vacancies without raising salaries.
7 A shortage of lorry drivers in the UK
Around ten percent of the lorry drivers who worked in the UK were EU citizens and most have left - they can’t return unless a visa is put in place for them. Many were low paid, often earning about £10 an hour. That is not a very attractive salary for this type of job. Working conditions are difficult too. One of the Government’s initial responses a couple of weeks ago was to increase the time drivers can be on the road. A Highland lorry driver tweeted at that time: “Just been told, as from Monday, I’ve to drive my 50ft long vehicle for five & a half hours before my break, 5 days a week.”
8 European road hauliers are dropping the UK from their routes
Prior to Brexit, it was common for European haulage companies to send lorries across the channel carrying produce. With more paperwork, delay, and expense, many European haulage companies have stopped serving the UK. Either the freight can come by container - necessitating collection and repacking, or drivers from the UK must go across and fetch it.
For greengrocer Francesco Cosentino this means the fresh food he imports from Italy now goes through London where it has to be sorted and put on a different lorry. Sometimes a consignment can’t get a delivery slot to Scotland - he feels the impact - it’s the difference between having a week or three days to sell fresh items.
9 Fish - Scotland’s fishing industry is disrupted
Because it has become so hard to export to the EU the fishing market has been disrupted.
Andrew Locker, the director of the family-run business Lockers Trawlers, which operates two fishing boats out of Peterhead in Aberdeenshire, said: “We used to swap quota we didn’t want with quota the French or Germans didn’t want and that enabled us to put together an annual fishing plan. This year we’re going to be woefully short of the amount of saithe, hake and cod we can catch.”
10 Greater distance from distribution centres may make delays worse in Scotland
Scotland may be at greater risk of disruption to food supplies as much imported food comes through England. If perishable food is delayed, it may be easier to get it to shops in Kent or London than to Barra or Colonsay. The journeys are longer and if drivers are in short supply that may increase pressure.
Greengrocer James Welby of Tattie Shaws is experiencing delays. He said: “It is probably a combination of Brexit and Covid but the produce is taking much longer to get here than it used to and it often isn’t Class One when it arrives. Everything has a cost - even delay. The produce is more expensive - on average around ten percent more.”
Conclusion - for the UK government push through a hard Brexit in the midst of a pandemic was foolhardy
For the UK Government to push through a hard Brexit in the midst of a pandemic was reckless. The current strategy is to blame the resulting shortages and price rises on Covid - the ‘pingdemic’. That may help to protect their political survival but it won’t help to sort out issues with the food supply.
William Thomson of independence live is organising a food sovereignty week from August 16 said: “We want to organize events where people can think about how to build more resilience into the food chain. We will discuss who controls how we import and export food. Do we want to leave all this in the hands of the government in London and the supermarkets? At the moment, we don’t even gather our own data in Scotland - we are depending on the UK government and the supermarkets to tell us what is going on.”
My recent articles on this in the National
Brexit-fuelled food crisis deepens for Scots as shelves empty and price increases loom
Retailers blame Brexit as food shortages sweep across Scotland’s stores
Brexit: Scottish customers face empty shelves and lack of fresh produce