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U.K.'s ability to produce its food in spotlight

dc1975/ThinkstockPhotos Brexit - UK flag surrounded by EU flags on blue background.
With no-deal Brexit still a possibility, a look at U.K. supply chain.

By Megan Durisin and Manisha Jha

Too much lamb and salmon, but not nearly enough fruit and vegetables: with key transport links to mainland Europe freezing up and a no-deal Brexit still a real possibility, the U.K.’s ability to produce its own food is back in the spotlight.

Industry groups have warned of looming shortages and shoppers queued up at supermarkets in London, after France on Sunday suspended travel from the U.K. for 48 hours. While traffic into the U.K. remains open, truckers often run supplies in both directions and may be deterred by the restrictions on leaving, which are aimed at curbing the spread of a fast-spreading new strain of the coronavirus.

The U.K. produces about half of its own food and supplies from the European Union made up a quarter of the total last year. Imports are particularly crucial for fresh produce during the winter, when farmers are limited to hardy crops like cabbage or carrots. At the same time, the port disruptions are leaving U.K. exporters of products from lamb to salmon stuck with a surplus.

As the clock ticks down to Christmas and New Year holidays, here’s how the U.K.’s food-supply chain stacks up:

Fruit and veg

The U.K. grows less than a fifth of its fruit and only half of its vegetables. There should be plenty of seasonal produce like brussels sprouts this time of year, according to the British Growers Association. But supply of salads, berries and citrus could be at threat.

The U.K. typically imports more than 400,000 tons of fresh tomatoes annually, and only produces about a fifth as much. It imported more than 2.5 billion pounds ($3.3 billion) of vegetables last year, with onions, tomatoes and sweet peppers topping the list. Fruit imports were even higher, at 3.9 billion pounds.

Fish

Scotland is a big supplier of salmon and a lobby group has warned that the industry could lose 6.5 million pounds before Christmas unless borders reopen. This week is the busiest of the year for trade and 150 tons of the fresh Scottish salmon is shipped daily to the EU. The short shelf life means there’s not much leeway to delay sales.

However, while the U.K. may face a surplus of salmon, it relies on imports for British favorites like the haddock and cod typically served battered with chips. Most of that comes from outside of the EU though, making it less likely to be affected by Brexit or border closures from bloc members.

Meat and poultry

The U.K. buys more than half of its pork and some beef from abroad, nearly all of which comes from Europe, data from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board show.

By contrast, there could be a lot of leftover lamb, particularly as the port closures frustrate processors’ efforts at a final sales push to the EU before a no-deal Brexit risks adding hefty tariffs to the bloc.

“The entire sheep sector has responded to calls to prepare for Brexit and has been acutely aware of the probability of disruption to exports in the first weeks of 2021,” said National Sheep Association Chief Executive Officer Phil Stocker. “For the cliff edge to have been brought forward by 10 days due to Covid-related closures is unexpected and frustrating.”

Cheese and dairy

British farmers are major dairy producers and the country should have enough milk to supply consumers. But it still buys more than a third of its cheese from abroad. A London School of Economics and Political Science study, commissioned by dairy maker Arla Foods, predicted costs of butter, cream cheese and mozzarella for pizza would rise if a Brexit deal isn’t agreed.

Wheat and barley

The U.K. is an established wheat producer and farmers usually supply nearly all of its needs. However, a season of extreme weather left the British wheat crop at its smallest since the early 1980s, which means homegrown grain will only cover about 80% of expected demand to make flour for bread and cakes, compared with about 90% a year earlier. The government cut its harvest estimate in a report on Tuesday.

 

It’s got more than enough barley though, which is used for brewing and animal feed.

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.
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