Until negotiations have been completed, European Union law remains in force in the UK. The immediate impact of the decision to quit the 28-member state bloc looks like rising food prices in a country that produces and grows less than 60% of the food it eats and is particularly reliant on imports from the EU for fruit and vegetables.
Speaking to FoodNavigator yesterday, Tim Lang predicted it could take five to 10 years for the UK to become food self-sufficient in food products, if that extreme scenario ever arose. And in the meantime? “People will pay more for food. The British people have voted to raise the food prices," he said simply.
"Where do they think their food comes from? Planet Zog?"
The consequences of rising prices could be disastrous for public health as a large proportion of the UK’s EU imports are fruit and vegetables. “Around 40% of horticultural products are imported from the EU – 40% of all the things that are good for health."
But none of this is news. Tim Lang and his colleague Victoria Schoen of the Food Research Collaboration published a report earlier this year warning of the consequences of a Brexit vote.
"We prophesised it, we knew it."
The options: EU law, 'Groundhog day' or 'slash and burn'
So what are the UK's options and what will the impact on the food industry be?
According to professor Lang there are three "very simple" options that could be pursued following the activation of Article 50 which permits an EU member state to leave the union.
The first is that the UK could choose to take on all of the EU’s acquis communautaire – the compilation or accumulation over time of legislation and court decisions which make up the body of European Union law. “But in this case most people who voted to leave would be unhappy.”
The second option would be to retain the acquis communautaire but weave out undesired EU law and cherry-picking which articles should be kept. This could take up to ten years requiring huge amounts of time, energy and resources.
“This anticipates a huge amount of time and energy given to such discussions. It means revisiting 43 years of what has already been decided in a kind of food policy groundhog day. This negotiation and sifting would have to reshape or reaffirm the legal basis of internal, trade and external frameworks,” writes professor Lang in the Brexit or Bremain report.
The third option is the one that would have the biggest consequences for food safety and standards. Professor Lang calls this the ‘slash and burn’ option whereby UK policymakers simply adopt World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules and the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Codex Alimentarius for food standards and safety.
But given that the WTO rules are “the lowest common denominator” and the Codex Alimentarius is determined in meetings that are “dominated by big business and lobbies [making] the EU look like the most democratic organisation in the world”, this is far from ideal. The result would be food riots, says professor Lang.
'It would be a farce if it wasn’t such a tragedy'
Nor will unravelling 43 years of co-negotiated food legislation – part of some 12,295 EU regulations – happen in two years.
According to some estimates 98% of UK food law is based on EU law and according to professor Lang, the enormity of renegotiating labelling requirements, trade agreements, safety regulations and labour rights – to name but a few – will be magnified because the UK currently does not have enough people to do so.
“The British government has spent all its time cutting the number of civil servants. Six years ago the Food Standards Agency (FSA) had five floors – now they have two. There’s no one there to do this.
“And Britain has almost no experience in world trade negotiations because we’ve done them through the EU. It would be a farce if it wasn’t such a tragedy.”
The EU is unlikely to grant the UK the same trade benefits it enjoyed pre-Brexit. German chancellor Angela Merkel has said it cannot expect to keep the privileges of EU ties without any of the obligations.
Meanwhile UK Indepedence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage was laughed at and booed by MEPs at an extraordinary plenary session in Brussels earlier today as he told the EU to "grow up" and grant the UK tariff-free trade with the single market so that Britain could “fulfil [its] global ambitions”.
Will negotiations be independently monitored?
So which of the three options would professor Lang go for? He is loath to make a choice – “they are all crazy” - but given that this situation is now a reality, he says the most important is to ensure there is a massive intake of civil servants to run and oversee the negotiations.
Parallel to this, and more importantly, he says there must be independent academics and scientists who come together to establish a monitoring system “to make damn sure big food business and other nasty elements don’t have a lovely time speculating with our food.”
It is imperative this monitoring system is independent, audited and held to public account, and professor Lang is in the process of calling together interested parties to participate. While he could not say who he had contacted, he confirmed he has had a lot of interest from academics in all sectors: “In all sectors, there is outrage.”
'a period of complete chaos'
Professor Lang’s feelings of incredulity and anger have been echoed by others in the food sector, an industry not normally given to using dramatic words lightly.
Yesterday, director general of the UK’s food trade group Food and Drink Federation (FDF) Ian Wright told attendees at a conference held by the Grocery Code Adjudicator the country is now facing “a period of complete chaos”.
“The country is leaderless on both sides. The remain camp has no plan B and those who voted leave have no plan at all. We face months of profound uncertainty.”
Meanwhile on Monday the head of the National Farmers Union (NFU), which opposed Brexit but chose not to campaign against it or advise members how to vote, called the referendum result “a political car crash”. Meurig Raymond told The Guardian the country should brace itself for higher food prices given its reliance on food imports from the EU combined with the pound falling to a 31-year low against the dollar yesterday.
Although Bank of England director Mark Carey has sought to reassure business, saying banks’ finances are in a better state than before the 2008 crisis, a report published yesterday by the Institute of Directors (IoD) found little confidence among business leaders.
24% of firms surveyed said they planned to freeze recruitment while 36% said they would cut investment following the Brexit result. A further 5% planned to make redundancies. IoD’s director general Simon Walker spoke bluntly: “We can’t sugar-coat this, many of our members are feeling anxious.”