The Guardian is very concerned that UK fruit exports have dropped by more than half since Brexit. And they are right – well almost. Actually, only UK export statistics have dropped. What the Guardian failed to mention is that the drop in fruit exports was really a drop in re-exports of citrus and tropical fruit and that this fall has nothing to do with trade barriers nor is it a risk for UK farmers, as The Guardian claims.
The fall of £135 million worth of fresh fruit between calendar year 2020 and calendar year 2022 was, according to the International Trade Centre (ITC): 23% citrus fruit; 18% berries, currants and gooseberries; 14% dates, figs, pineapples, avocados, guavas, mangoes and mangosteens; 13% bananas; 13% Grapes; 7% melons and papaws; 5% dried apricots and prunes etc. Despite The Guardian’s misdirection by mentioning English apples and pears in their first sentence, only 3.6% or £4.8 million of the fall in UK fruit exports was in the tariff category 0808: apples, pears and quinces.
The Guardian tries to claim that the decline is due to mandatory health certificates and customs paperwork. However, although the EU does have phytosanitary checks on imported fruit, that is not the cause of the fall in UK fruit exports. If The Guardian had bothered to read the UK EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement they would know that the Rules of Origin require all products in Chapter 8 – Edible fruit and nuts, to be wholly obtained in the country of origin. (See page 1022 of the 2555 page document). Citrus fruit, bananas, dates, mangoes etc cannot be ‘wholly obtained’ in the UK.
So, the fall in fruit exports has nothing to do with SPS regulations but is simply because the UK does not have the climate to grow citrus or tropical fruit. Even the fruit that the UK can grow, such as apples, pears and strawberries, don’t grow all year round, nor can the UK grow them in large enough quantities to meet the UK’s massive consumer demand, so we still import additional quantities of apples and pears from France and strawberries from Spain. The UK imported over 3.4 million tonnes of fruit, worth £4.3 billion, in 2022. Dwarfing even the UK’s pre-Brexit fruit exports of 187 thousand tonnes worth £216 million.
Bizarrely the Guardian claims that a chartered accountancy firm called Hazlewoods, has analysed the trade figures and that they ‘blamed a number of factors including the risk to farmers who are selling fruit, which may end up rotting if delayed by customs or phytosanitary officials in Calais and other EU ports.’
And that a partner in the firm, Rebecca Copping, claimed that “Long delays at UK ports are dissuading many fruit farmers from sending their produce abroad,” that ‘red-tape is making it harder for farmers to export their wares.” and that “Even double-digit inflation hasn’t been enough to bring the value of fruit exports into the black.”
Copping seems to be completely unaware of the varieties of fruit that can be grown in the UK, how little fruit the UK has ever exported, the varieties of fruit that were counted as UK exports pre-Brexit, why these varieties of fruit are no longer counted as a UK exports, nor even why UK fruit exports to the EU will never be as high as they were before Brexit. While her claims about Calais and extra costs forcing EU buyers to import from other EU countries makes me doubt that Hazlewoods has ever analysed the UK fruit trade.
Nor does this have anything to do with inflation, fruit import and export quantities are available by weight. The UK exported 9,379 tonnes of apples in 2022, of which 7,781 tonnes went to Ireland presumably via Holyhead or Liverpool not Calais. The UK exported only 238 tonnes of apples to France in 2022, slightly more than the 217 tonnes of apples they exported to France in 2019, so it looks like Coping is mistaken, there were no problems in Calais for the UK’s very small amount of apple exports either.
Although UK apple exports have fallen since 2019, Ireland remains the UK’s largest export destination, taking 83% of UK apple exports in 2022 just as they bought 84% of the UK’s apple exports in 2019. So, it is likely that apples imported by the UK out of season from South Africa, Chile or New Zealand and then re-exported to Ireland from UK ports pre-Brexit, are still being exported to Ireland but are now no longer counted as UK exports but correctly counted as a South African, Chilean or New Zealand exports. There is also a chance that some of the 80 thousand tonnes of apples that the UK imported from France were also re-exported to Ireland and are now correctly recorded as a French export rather than a UK one. This is hardly a story worthy of The Guardian’s attention-grabbing headline.
While I appreciate that the UK border checks should be done as efficiently as possible, and I do not dispute that the EU has stringent SPS rules, The Guardian should not be pretending that the fall in export figures is due to a problem exporting UK grown fruit to the EU. The UK only grows dessert apples, culinary apples, pears, raspberries and strawberries commercially and according to DEFRA’s Agriculture in the UK 2021, domestic fruit production makes up only 15% of domestic fruit consumption. The UK just isn’t in the business of exporting fruit. Even strawberries, one fruit that would meet Copping’s claim that the UK has ‘an historic reputation for producing high-quality fruit’, the UK imports over 200,000 tonnes each year but exports less than 10,000 tonnes.
For the most part UK ‘fruit exports’ before Brexit were really re-exports of fruit imported from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, South America or New Zealand and are now correctly counted as such. And this has little to do with SPS trade barriers but a lot to do with the rules of origin in the UK EU trade agreement.