Prepping for Brexit?
I’ve been asked several times recently whether it’s worth stockpiling emergency food in preparation for Brexit. The news has been profiling ‘preppers’ up and down the country who are packing the space under their guest bed with the likes of fish paste, dehydrated-mince and sachets of Angel Delight. Personally, I think the prospect of that menu is the only thing that could make Brexit more unpalatable, but I suppose it’s better to be prepared than not.
Some folk are utterly convinced that in the absence of agreed trade routes or trading standards, we will be facing weeks, if not months, of empty supermarket shelves and consequent societal breakdown; good reason perhaps, to bulk buy dubious tinned protein and crates of Lloyd Grossman’s best. My own mother, who has kept and replenished a modest emergency food bag since the Y2K scare, takes the more moderate stance that it’s best to have something kept by, ‘just in case’. Her significant stockpile of wine is less moderate, but infinitely more sensible.
In truth, nobody knows what will happen when we sever our ties with Europe, but for those like myself who like a good Italian red, we’re sure to notice price hikes and diminished supply quite quickly. And it won’t just effect food originating in Europe such as wine, cheese, salami, rice, fruit, vegetables and flour, but also products that are sent to Europe to be processed or packaged, or which contain ingredients manufactured in Europe. Remember the complex supply chain for Findus products that was revealed during the horsemeat scandal? Supply chains are rarely linear, and for this reason alone we may be surprised by the products that disappear from our shelves or become prohibitively expensive.
For the vast majority of us, the effects of Brexit will probably first be felt in the supermarket, where over 90% of food is bought in the UK. Even the significant market power of the big 5 may still not be enough to prevent empty shelves and discontinued items during renegotiation of trade partnerships. For many, this is yet another compelling reason to circumvent supermarkets altogether and opt for simpler, more transparent supply chains. ‘Alternative’ food networks, such as box schemes, farmers markets and buying cooperatives, are often perceived as being more equitable, sustainable, and – perhaps most importantly in the context of Brexit – resilient. Although the end product may appear costlier at the till* and the convenience of the one-stop-shop removed, buying direct from the producer provides the opportunity for greater engagement with, knowledge of, and agency in how that food is produced and transported. And the fewer links in a supply chain, the lower the risk of any one link being compromised.
In the UK buying local has been considered quaint and idealistic and solely for the preserve of those with the time and money to do it. But after Brexit, will local food become necessity rather than luxury? I would love to think so, but it’s unlikely for two main reasons.
Firstly, we have become culturally wedded to shopping in supermarkets and buying cheap food, and act on the assumption that the two are always synonymous. Once we’ve left the single market, it’s highly likely that our supermarket shelves will be stocked with low-cost imports from countries with the advantages of scale and fewer quality and welfare standards, such as the US and China. UK farmers will certainly struggle to compete with such cheap food and us shoppers will quickly forget about the horrors of chlorinated chicken (which is by no means the worst of what the US produces) when it costs so little at the till.
Secondly, the UK doesn’t actually produce enough ‘local’ food in the first place (meeting around only half of its current needs) and certainly won’t have the financial incentive to do so after the market is flooded with impossibly cheap imports. Some believe that if UK farmers can’t compete, then they should just go out of business. Personally, I think that would be of huge detriment to our countryside, culture, diets and future security.
For those who imagined that after I moved to the Borders I’d be stocked with the best fresh countryside produce, my apologies for bursting your bubble. Although I am indeed surrounded by farms, ‘local food’ is very hard to come by and there are very few markets in the Borders. I’m lucky to have an organic egg farm nearby, and also have friends who produce beautiful honey, but everything else is trucked out of the valley to be slaughtered and packaged for export, or is made into whisky for foreign markets. In the few remaining spaces that aren’t intensively farmed there are wild greens to be had, but not until May - a couple of months after we’ve Brexited. Otherwise, I am at the mercy of my local supermarkets which, being in small towns, are unlikely to be prioritised and will probably have quite a few empty shelves.
So, will I be stockpiling for Brexit? Damn straight I will. But Asda can keep their tinned tuna. Although I can’t buy ‘local’, I can still support Scottish producers which, to my mind, is more important than ever if we want them to be around and able to supply us (rather than orienting themselves solely towards export) after Brexit.
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For more on how Brexit will effect your breakfast, take a listen to this recent BBC Radio 4 Food Programme episode.