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Brexit and the great British breakfast

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Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU) will have profound consequences for the country’s food supplies, particularly in respect of the staple components of the traditional British breakfast: bacon and eggs. Such claims might appear scaremongering given that the country has for most of the time since the 1870s been increasingly dependent on imported food, particularly cheap cereals grown on the American and Canadian prairies. In addition, beef has been imported in large quantities from Argentina, with refrigerated lamb, mutton, pork and butter from major agricultural-producing countries such as New Zealand. Britain’s dependence on imported Danish bacon was the subject of political debate between the 1930-50s (the country’s pig industry was more efficient than Britain’s at exploiting economies of scale and improving breeds), while eggs were secured from countries as far away as China.

The reduction in food imports caused by the First and Second World Wars showed that not only Britain, but most other countries are only able to deal with a disruption of this magnitude by implementing radical changes in the nation’s diet. Stringent rationing controls were imposed on bacon, restricted to little more than two slices per person per week, while eggs were similarly limited being supplemented with the use of powdered eggs. The war revealed that agriculture, unlike the manufacturing and industrial sectors, was considerably less able to respond rapidly to changes in the demand for specific types of food. Moreover as the demand for food is in economic terms relatively inelastic, it is not very responsive to price changes, even relatively minor changes in supply. Whether caused by weather-induced fluctuations or by disruptions to trade resulting from political or financial events, such as Brexit, this can lead to food shortages and substantial price inflation.

Whilst the proportion of the population employed in agriculture has fallen dramatically since 1801 during the two world wars it was necessary for Britain to implement a state directed food production campaign. This involved not only encouraging farmers to increase production through the provision of guaranteed prices and subsidies, but also by recruiting and mobilising additional labour to work on the land. The iconic image of this was the establishment of the Women’s Land Army in 1916, resurrected in 1939 which at its peak in 1943 amounted to just over 80,000. Less well documented, but more important in numerical terms was the use of prisoners of war (POWs) to work on the land, as well as school children. The number of POWs increased from 1,000 (about 6%) in 1941 to almost 171,000 by 1947, constituting 20% of the rural labour force.

Leaving aside these wartime examples it is worth remembering that even in peacetime British agriculture has been heavily dependent on being able to secure additional sources of labour. In the late nineteenth century Irish migrants as well as other forms of labour undertook seasonal activities especially planting and harvesting crops. In spite of the unprecedented advances in mechanisation that have occurred since the Second World War, stimulated by the 1947 Agriculture Act which increased efficiency and raised productivity, British agriculture remains dependent on recruiting seasonal workers. Currently British agriculture relies heavily on European supplies of labour; farmers will face serious labour shortages unless seasonal workers are encouraged to work in the UK post-Brexit. Job recruitment agencies and organisations including the National Farmers Union have expressed concern warning that agriculture and other sectors of the economy turn to overseas workers – and will continue to do so – as British workers are often unwilling or reluctant to undertake these relatively low paid or temporary jobs.

This is not simply a case of the potential loss of seasonal labour, for instance fruit and vegetable picking. Other sectors of agriculture like the dairy and meat packing industries will be affected. Without the continuation of this supply of migrants to provide an unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled workforce, agriculture will struggle to find sufficient labour to fulfil the needs of intensive livestock production and allied processing activities and will be forced to contract. In the region of 20% of regular full-time staff directly employed in agriculture are migrant labour, mainly from Romania, while in the meat and egg production sectors the dependence is greater.  Among members of the National Pig Association 58% employ at least one migrant worker, while 63% of workers employed by members of the British Meat Processors Association originate from other EU countries, mainly Central and Eastern Europe. Similarly labour shortages will affect domestic egg production making the country more dependent on imports. In 2016, 15% of the country’s needs were met by EU imports.

The agriculture industry’s difficulty in attracting sufficient labour reflects a variety of factors. The British population perceives agricultural work as not only being low paid and long hours, but also unattractive in terms of the type of work involved. Factors such as the recent devaluation of sterling makes wage levels in Britain less attractive as well as the desirability for workers to secure employment in more buoyant and better paid growth sectors, such as construction or hospitality. Whilst the nostalgic vision of the return of the high street butcher, imperial measurements and less EU red tape might appeal to some, Brexit may possibly lead to labour shortages that could adversely impact agricultural production, at the same time as a reduction in subsidies, resulting in higher prices. Post-Brexit immigration policy, yet to be finalised, needs to reflect the demands of British agriculture.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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