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UK government denies Brexit is to blame for food shortages

Empty shelves in British supermarkets are sparking anxiety about the country's food security – and the government response is failing to reassure farmers and the wider public.

(CN) — The British government is denying that Brexit is to blame for widespread supply issues, as political recriminations begin over increasing food shortages across the country.

Major British supermarkets including Tesco, Morrisons and Asda have introduced rationing of fruit and vegetables after weeks of empty shelves, resulting in growing consumer and business anxiety over the unprecedented shortages.

On Friday, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told reporters that “poor weather in certain parts of southern Europe and north Africa” were to blame for the shortfalls. The line echoes comments made by Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey, who received boos and heckles at a farming conference on Thursday for saying that the government “can’t control the weather in Spain.”

Despite government claims, pictures of fully stocked shelves across Europe, including in war-torn Ukraine, are leaving Brits skeptical that weather-related issues are causing the shortfalls. Instead many are increasingly pointing the finger of blame at post-Brexit trade arrangements, amid declining public support for the historic split from the European Union.

The frosty reception from farmers received by Coffey reflects increasingly dire relations between British agricultural producers and the ruling Conservative Party, who traditionally seek to represent rural businesses. A statement from campaign group Save British Farming said Coffey’s excuse was “absolute nonsense,” further stating that “the reason that we have food shortages in Britain and that we don’t have food shortages in Spain – or anywhere else in the EU – is because of Brexit, and also because of this disastrous Conservative government that has no interest in food production, farming or even food supply.”

Farmers are annoyed at the government’s handling of Brexit for several reasons. Firstly, increased trade costs associated with bureaucracy have left some importers of fresh produce bypassing the U.K. in favor of other European markets, placing greater strain on domestic supply than in previous years.

Secondly, labor shortages in the agricultural sector have become acute since the U.K. left the bloc. Prior to Brexit the U.K.’s horticultural industry was heavily dependent on workers from eastern EU states, such as Romania, who enjoyed free movement under the institution’s rules. Now that free movement has ended, fruit pickers have become scarce, reducing output and forcing farmers into more expensive recruitment from further away countries, such as Barbados, Nepal and Tajikistan. The labor shortages are reported to be causing levels of food waste to reach an unprecedented scale, compounding the supply crisis.

In addition, the British government’s intended replacement for the EU’s agricultural subsidies has been stalled several times amid political instability, whilst details of the scheme remain vague, leaving many farmers operating on reducing margins and limiting their ability to plan for future years.

Coffey also came under fire for suggesting to a committee of parliamentarians that consumers should eat turnips instead of their preferred produce. Responding to criticism, a government spokesperson told reporters: "We don't believe it's for us to tell people what they should or shouldn't buy. That's entirely a matter for them.”

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, opposition member of Parliament Christine Jardine said: “People are rightly alarmed about the chronic shortage of fruit and vegetables in our shops, but it seems the government has no urgent plan to fix it. Ministers cannot just sit on their hands while food supply chains across the country grind to a halt.”

Aside from weather and Brexit, a major reason for the shortages has been sky-high energy costs. Britain has become the European nation worst affected by energy price hikes, according to the International Monetary Fund, with businesses hit even harder than households. Firms have experienced a 130% increase in electricity costs and an accompanying 180% increase in gas costs since August 2021.

As a result of the price hikes, many horticulturists have simply stopped growing their produce, unable to afford the large heating bills required for greenhouses during the U.K.’s cold season. It is reported that growers across the industry are delaying planting their crops until the warmer months, and an estimated 10% of producers have closed their operations already, with many more enduring large losses.

This has left Britain reliant on cheaper imports from warmer countries – in particular Mediterranean exporters such as Spain and Morocco – as retailers desperately try to keep food prices down amid ballooning inflation. British food costs are estimated to have risen by 15% throughout 2022, and are continuing to spike. The rising costs of fertilizer and feed, as well as an outbreak of avian flu, are also contributing factors to the shortages.

Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union, told the BBC that “the country is sleepwalking into further food supply crises, with the future of British fruit and vegetable supplies in trouble.” She urged the prime Minister to prioritize food supply with greater urgency, and to hold a food security summit which can develop a longer-term approach.

Whatever the core reason for supply issues, the prolonged food shortages are contributing to gradually pushing Brits away from support of Brexit. The issue divided the electorate roughly in half during the torturous extraction process from the bloc between 2016 and 2020. But since leaving the EU, polling suggests a growing consensus behind the idea of rejoining. The most recent poll by Omnisis found that 49% back rejoining the union, and only 33% are opposed, with 18% undecided.

Both major political parties in the U.K., Conservative and Labour, remain committed to Brexit. But it’s a consensus which may not hold if economic performance and living standards continue to fall at the same pace.

Categories: Economy Government International Politics

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