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Brexit adding to ‘crippling’ UK food supply crisis, say farming chiefs

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Brexit has added to the UK’s mounting food supply crisis which has seen a “crippling” shortage of some goods in the supermarket, the nation’s farming union has said.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) said current egg shortages “could just be the start” and warned that consumers could soon see a scarcity of tomatoes, cucumbers, pears and other fresh produce.

NFU president Minette Batters said Britain’s fruit and vegetable supply could soon be “in trouble”, as she urged the government to help producers under severe strain from soaring costs.

Ms Batters also said Brexit was partly to blame for the food sectors’ woes because of acute labour shortages and the costly burden of red tape faced by British exporters trying to sell to the EU.

Decrying the ongoing “challenges of trade” with the bloc after Brexit, the NFU chief told The Independent: “It has added cost. We are exporting less into the EU than we were. Leaving the EU was always going to add cost.”

Saying Brexit problems had been “compounded” by Covid and soaring energy costs, Ms Batters added: “The global pandemic added a lot of cost inflation, and the war in Ukraine has blown all of that apart and added a whole new level of cost inflation that no-one could have predicted.”

The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) also said trade and immigration barriers brought by Brexit were continuing to cause problems – with most plants experiencing around 10 per cent to 15 per cent shortages in workers.

“All the new requirements on exports to the EU has made everything more costly and time consuming, with some meat exporters losing customers in Europe,” said Nan Jones, the BMPA’s policy manager.

Despite, the BMPA said closer alignment with the EU’s agri-food rules would be “sensible”, arguing that common veterinary standards would remove the burden of so many checks.

It comes as several supermarkets introduced a temporary buying limit of eggs per customer amid the impact of rising costs. The cost of animal feed has risen 75 per cent since 2019, forcing many farmers to cut back on egg-laying hens.

The NFU urged Rishi Sunak’s government to declare “exceptional market conditions” and offer emergency support to egg producers.

Some fruit and veg farmers had been forced to cut production by between 20 and 30 per cent over the past two years, the body said – warning of potential shortages of tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuces, celery, sweet peppers and pears.

The body warned that some beef farmers were considering whether to reduce the number of cows they breed. Ministers were also to bring forward legislation aimed at ensuring dairy farmers get a fair price, with milk prices set to fall below the cost of production.

The NFU also called on the government to expand the number of seasonal overseas workers’ visas from 38,000 to at least 55,000 to help tackle the labour shortages after Brexit.

“We have already seen the egg supply chain crippled under the pressure caused by these issues and I fear the country is sleepwalking into further food supply crises – with the future of British fruit and vegetable supplies in trouble,” said Ms Batters.

The union leader warned that the failure to boost domestic production would “drive further food inflation” faced by Britons at the supermarket. “The danger is we produce less and less and less and we become more reliant on imports,” said Ms Batters.

It follows recent research which found that Brexit had cost UK households more than £5.8bn in higher food bills, increasing food inflation by 6 per cent.

The NFU also criticised the government’s post-Brexit trade deals – arguing that the agreements with Australia and New Zealand have undercut domestic producers by eliminating tariffs on imports.

The union warned ministers that possible government deals with Canada and Mexico must give “reciprocal access to overseas markets” for British farmers if tariffs on imports are reduced.

The NFU said there were now 7,000 fewer registered agricultural companies in the UK than in 2019, with many pushed out of business by soaring costs and workforce shortages.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) insisted that the UK still has a high degree of food security which is “built on supply from diverse sources”, including strong domestic production as well as imports through stable trade routes.

The row comes as the rate of food price inflation was predicted to reach a peak year-on-year rise of between 17 per cent and 19 per cent in early 2023.

The Institute of Grocery Distribution’s latest estimate is up from the institute’s previous forecast of a peak of between 14 per cent and 16 per cent, with many families already forced to cut back or turn to food banks during the cost of living crisis.