How dependent is the UK on the EU for food?

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By Dearbail Jordan
Business reporter, BBC News

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image copyrightEPA
image captionA taste of things to come? France’s decision to stop lorry drivers entering from the UK could affect fresh food supplies
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France’s decision to close the border with the UK to stop the spread of a new variant of the coronavirus has highlighted the importance of the Dover-Calais route for food supplies.

French residents and nationals with recent negative coronavirus tests will be able to travel from Wednesday, and lorry drivers can do so after a rapid lateral flow test.

So just how dependent is the UK on the EU for food? And should British shoppers be worried?

How dependent is UK on food from the EU?

About 30% of all the food we eat in the UK comes from the European Union, according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC) industry group.

Britain imports nearly half of its fresh vegetables and the majority of its fruit, both mainly from the EU – and that’s where the potential problem was.

During the summer months, the UK can grow plenty of its own produce like lettuces and soft berries such as raspberries and strawberries, but when the weather turns colder Britain is forced to rely much more on imports from the EU.

In January, for example, the UK imports 90% of the lettuces it needs from the EU. But in June, Britain produces 95% of its own salad leaves.

Tomatoes follow the same pattern. In January, the UK buys in 85% of tomatoes from the European bloc, but by summer it is growing 60% of what the country needs.

By the time winter rolls around, half of all the UK’s food is imported, according to the Food and Drink Federation.

It says that while there are no concerns about food supplies over Christmas, shoppers may have startedto see gaps in fresh fruit and vegetable supplies from next week – had the UK and France not “swiftly restored” their links.

Fruit and veg graphic

How does the UK get food here?

When it comes to fresh food, the most efficient and cheapest way to get produce to the UK is in refrigerated trucks, using the “roll-on roll-off” method of transport.

Food is loaded on the truck at a farm in Spain, for example, and is driven to Calais where it directly “rolls on” a ferry or the Eurotunnel and “rolls off” when it gets to Dover in the UK before heading to its final destination. These trucks are then loaded up with UK goods which are then sent back across the Channel to EU customers.

The driver will stay with the truck – which is known as “accompanied freight” – and this is why there were some problems in recent days.

France wasconcerned about drivers coming from the UK with the new variant of the coronavirus. Thousands of lorries got stuck in Kent waiting to get back into the EU.

In the past, the UK has turned to other means when fresh produce has been under threat.

In 2018, a summer heat wave meant the UK was eating more salad than usual but the hotter weather also made it difficult to actually grow lettuces.

Thousands of iceberg lettuces were duly shipped in to the UK from Los Angeles. But this is an expensive method of replenishing supplies and it is doubtful businesses will want to pay a premium for shipping at a time when they could be facing tariffs on buying other goods from the EU depending on a Brexit deal.

empty shelves at Wandsworth Waitrose
image captionDespite assurances that plenty of food will be available, some shoppers found empty shelves

What does the UK sell to the EU?

Last year, the UK exported £14.2bn worth of food and drink to the EU, out of a total £23.6bn worldwide.

The Food and Drink Federation says the UK’s biggest exports are goods such as whisky, salmon, chocolate, cheese and gin.

The UK also exports a huge amount of the meat it produces to the EU. The National Farmers’ Union says 82% of UK beef exports go to the bloc. The UK sells 30% of its lamb overseas, most of which goes to the EU.

In the EU, Ireland is the UK’s biggest customer. It bought £4bn worth of food and drink from the UK in 2019 – although that was a 3.8% drop on the previous year.

France bought £2.3bn worth of produce from Britain last year, a rise of 3.5%, while the Netherlands imported £1.7bn of UK goods, up 5.2%.

Stranded lorry driversimage copyrightEPA
image captionFrance’s decision to close its border to the UK left hundreds of lorry drivers stranded

Are warnings of food shortages overdone?

The UK found itself in the eye of a perfect storm: France shutits border to freight from the UK; winter means the UK is more reliant on the EU for fresh food; Britain will stop trading under EU rules on 31 December; some British ports are facing severe delays; the coronavirus has changed shopping habits and it is Christmas so demand is high.

However, the UK’s major supermarketssay they have plenty of supplies – following the coronavirus panic-buying earlier this year – and are encouraging people to “shop as normal”.

Tesco said: “We’ve been building our stockholding of key products ahead of the Christmas peak and are working closely with our hauliers and suppliers to continue the supply of goods into our stores.”

However, it didwarn supplies of a few fresh items such as lettuce and citrus fruit might have been reduced “later this week” had an agreement not been reached.

Sainsbury’s said it was looking at looking at alternative ways of sourcing products from Europe, a spokesman says: “If nothing changes, we will start to see gaps over the coming days on lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus fruit, all of which are imported from the Continent at this time of year.”

Child eating a cabbage leafimage copyrightGetty Images
image captionWe’ll always have cabbage: The UK grows its own greens

Could supply chain worries mean we produce more food here?

We could – though there would certainly not be the variety consumers are used to. The National Farmers’ Union says the UK imports 45% of its vegetables, the vast majority of which come from the EU.

Britain also buys 84% of its fruit from overseas, although it is less dependent on the EU for these goods.

However, Spain is the biggest supplier of fruit to the UK, accounting for 19% of imports.

There are certain things we can grow here in the UK whatever the weather. For example, the UK produces 70% of cabbage and cauliflower supplies in January, rising to 90% in June.

However, that appears to be more weighted towards cabbage at the moment given that Tesco and Sainsbury’s have both warned that cauliflowers could be one of the vegetables affected by the disruption.

Meanwhile, vegetables like rhubarb will always thrive here given that it likes damp cold soil.

But if difficulties continue at the border with France, or a Brexit deal makes some produce more expensive to bring into the UK, then people may find themselves having to eat whatever is seasonal.

No doubt, this will please some such as environmentalists as it means food will not have to travel as far, keeping a lid on emissions.

However, it may not agree with everyone’s palate.

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