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Did the Observer’s Food Critic know he was spreading propaganda?

eu food propoganda
Written by Catherine McBride

Despite the hoo-ha about the new border checks, only 23% of UK food comes from the EU and much of that comes from Ireland, not the continent. Trade is determined by the economic health of our trading partners, not compliance with their rules. But real UK food security can only be achieved by a variety of import suppliers. Not paying farmers to grow wildflowers would also help.

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In an article in Saturday’s Observer, Jay Rayner is worried that Post Brexit border checks will cause food shortages and empty UK supermarkets because the UK ‘imports more than 45% of its food’. He cites a Defra Food Security report for this figure but most of the data in the report is from 2021 or earlier. A more up-to-date government report claims that 42% of UK food was imported in 2022 and only 23% was imported from the EU, (see point 3.1 in the cited document). But more importantly, both of these measurements are by value not volume.  Food shortages are about the volume of imported food, not its value.

The EU is famous for producing expensive food, which can greatly inflate trade figures. For example, the UK imports a greater value of cheese from Italy than any other country with an imported value of £312,758,000 in 2022 according to ITC. This is probably due to the high per-kilo price of Parmesan cheese. But when we look at UK cheese imports by volume, we import much more from Ireland, our largest cheese supplier (61.5 thousand tonnes) than from Italy (46.9 thousand tonnes).

This brings us to another point that Rayner seems to have misunderstood: not all EU food imports come across the channel. Ireland is the UK’s largest EU supplier by volume of imported beef (supplying about 75% of total UK imports), cheese, butter, fresh eggs, and potatoes. So, the queues at Sevington, in Kent may not be as bad as Rayner predicts.

Rayner then goes on to state that similar robust export checks by the EU have lowered UK exports: UK beef and pork exports were already down by more than 20%.’ Rayner obviously assumed that no one would bother to read his citation – its full headline is: ‘UK  sheep meat exports soar as beef and pork fall.’ But Rayner chose to ignore the first part of the article as it doesn’t suit his argument – the EU’s export checks clearly aren’t hurting UK sheepmeat exports.

Rayner has also cherrypicked his statistics, or his researchers did. Let’s start with his claims about lower pork exports. Traditionally the UK has not been a large producer or exporter of pork. Until 2012 we imported more than we produced and almost all of it came from the EU. Between 2013 and 2019 we imported almost as much as we produced, about 90% by weight, and still almost all of it from the EU. Since Brexit, UK pork production has increased by about 100,000 tonnes and our imports from the EU have dropped by about 100,000 tonnes. Could we possibly be eating more of our own pork? If we are, I think that is a good thing.

Rayner quotes a Cotswold farmer who claimed that “UK pig farmers have been particularly crushed on price over the past three years by supermarkets and are simply quitting the business.”  Maybe this Cotswold farmer should check out Defra’s statistical publications, which contradict this anecdotal evidence. Rayner also quotes the AHDB (the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board) who although claiming that UK pork production of 927,400 tonnes in 2023 was ‘the lowest annual production since 2018’, the Defra figures that the same AHDB analyst cites show that this is not true. Only in 2020, 2021 and 2022 has UK pork production ever been higher than in 2023, due mainly to imports by China. What the AHDB senior livestock analysis failed to explain was that China had a massive outbreak of swine fever in 2019 and culled millions of pigs. China then imported large amounts of pork from other producers, including the UK, which pushed up UK production. The AHDB article also states that UK boar and sow killing fell by 15% in 2023, this doesn’t sound like farmers are ‘quitting the business’ – if they were, the first things to go would be the breeding stock – boars and sows.

UK pork exports have always been low, about 20% of UK domestic production, but they jumped to 30% in 2020 and 2021 due to Chinese buying as mentioned above. China was still the UK’s largest export market in 2022 but they imported about half as much as they did in 2020. I suspect China has restocked their piggeries now. And it is probably the loss of exports to China that is the cause of the lower exports Rayner chose to report, not customs checks preventing exports to the EU.  So, the UK’s very brief time as a pork exporter may be over. Or maybe not, according to ITC our exports to the Philippines increased from 3.4 thousand tonnes in 2019 to 19.8 thousand in 2022. So, perhaps our meat exporters just have to look for more new markets further afield.

As for Rayners claims that beef exports are ‘already down by more than 20%’. If Rayner had bothered to read his citation, published in July 2023, the article explained the lower exports as being ‘due to subdued demand from consumers in Europe and because UK cattle prices have been strong and therefore not as competitive on the global trading landscape.’ So, this is not about export checks either.

While checking Rayner’s citations about fruit imports I see he has again cherry-picked his data, or maybe he also didn’t read the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) report he cites. He doesn’t mention the FDF’s claim that exports to Ireland were up by 6.9%, nor that UK milk and cream exports were up by 10.1% by value and by 6.3% by volume, nor that ‘imports have held firm (+3.6%), led by growth from European Markets (+6.8%).’ No Rayner didn’t see any of this, he only noticed that ‘apple imports were down by 16.8%, and oranges by 18.2%’. Strangely he left out the rest of the sentence in the FDF report, which goes on to say that ‘melon imports were down by 18.6%’. Did Rayner think this would make his assertions seem a bit fatuous? The FDF doesn’t say if their fruit import figures are by value or volume but either way, it is possible that when UK consumers must tighten their belts due to high interest rates and higher energy costs, they choose to cut back on imported fruit first – especially melons.

Rayner then goes on to claim, ‘the impact on meat products is expected to be even worse due to a shortage of the European vets required to check consignments.’ This time Rayner cites a Guardian article. Its author seems to be surprised that: ‘the “border target operating model” will require all meat and dairy exports to be checked by a vet within the European country before they can be sent to the UK. It requires vets to fill in a seven-page document certifying that the animal has been free of disease and has certain vaccinations.’ My understanding of this process is that all live animals in developed countries are inspected on arrival at an abattoir to ensure they are healthy before being slaughtered. This should happen whether the animals’ meat is destined for domestic consumption or for export. I have trouble understanding why the EU would need more Vets than it had before: the UK has always imported beef, pork and some chicken from the EU and I am sure UK meat importers would have expected the animals to have been certified as healthy before they were killed, regardless of whether they were destined for the plates of EU consumers.

It is important because EU countries export pork and pork products all over the world, and all of their export markets will require documents certifying that the animals were free of disease before they were slaughtered. Filling in a few extra forms for UK imports shouldn’t be an insurmountable problem. But if you are worried about the quality of EU imports, then please buy more meat from UK farmers, this may actually ‘Save British Farming’.

That said, Labour’s plan to source all food for the public sector from the UK, while not impossible would leave the public sector with a rather restrictive diet of meat, potatoes, carrots, onions, dairy products and apples. This would make a pretty good Lancashire hotpot with stewed apples and cream for dessert. But our multicultural population as well as our soybean-eating vegetarians may not be so happy – but hey, Labour has obviously had a Damascene conversion, reunited with its heartland and abandoned multiculturism. Alternatively, Labour have even less knowledge of UK food supply chains than Rayner.

But Rayner does make one very valid point. The insanity of the UK’s Sustainable Farming Incentive schemes that subsidise farmers to not grow food but instead plant wildflowers and seeds for wild birds. What is Defra thinking? If farmers want to stop farming, let them do that on their own dime, not at taxpayers’ expense. It would be better for everyone if farmers who don’t want to farm any more, sold their farmland to people who do. Consolidation of UK farms would improve productivity and profitability. Larger farms may even allow UK farmers to operate as independent businesses, without needing subsidies at all.

But if UK exports have fallen in 2023, we shouldn’t be surprised.  Trade is affected by the same influences as all other transactions – price and consumer affluence. We spend more when our incomes are high and less when they’re not. Rayner may not know this, but most of the UK’s large EU export markets have had little to no economic growth in 2023. We will get the total trade figures for 2023 at the end of this week, but I expect a lot of the UK’s exports to the EU, not just its food exports, will be lower. And it is not because of Brexit or import checks but as James Carville once famously said: ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’

If anything, lower trade figures in 2023 will make a stronger case for diversifying our trade away from the EU, not aligning with it. The only true food security will come from having multiple suppliers, and not being dependent on countries with the same weather patterns as our own. And our exporters need a variety of markets with different economic patterns so that our exports don’t suffer whenever the EU is in a recession.

Catherine McBride OBE, is an economist and member of the Trade and Agriculture Commission, tasked with scrutinising the UK’s new trade deals for the Government.  

She writes here in a personal capacity.

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Catherine McBride