What will Brexit mean for British food?

The EU has transformed the way we buy, cook, eat and think about food.

In her 1950 début cookbook, Mediterranean Cooking, Elizabeth David quoted the French chef, Marcel Boulestin: ‘It is not really an exaggeration to say that peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking.’

We credit Elizabeth David with bringing European food to our shores, but in 1950s Britain, her recipes were aspirational, and her ingredients hard to come by. She instructed readers to buy their olive oil at chemists, where it was sold to unblock waxy ears.

Only when we joined the EEC, in 1973, did European ingredients become widely available. Olives, lemons and garlic appeared on our shelves, and our culinary landscape changed overnight. Simply put, the European Union has transformed the way we buy, cook, eat and think about food.

Food production was at the heart of the European project from the beginning. A key objective of the EEC was to avoid famines like the one that struck the Netherlands in 1944. Trade would bring peace and prosperity – but also, plenty to eat. So are we now on the verge of a food crisis?

Well, the cost of imports is likely to rise, at least in the short term. The Danish Agriculture & Food Council has tried to reassure bacon-lovers that nothing will change, but does acknowledge that ‘the introduction of duty, more paperwork etc. could have a negative impact’.

Dairy farmers and fisheries have welcomed the result, having campaigned against the negative effects of European competition and quotas. The hit on other farming, particularly in Wales, remains to be seen, but the average Welsh farmer currently receives £15,000 a year from the EU: four-fifths of their income.

Less talked about are the effects of an end to free movement. Our food system depends on migrant labour at all levels, from the picking of fruit to the slaughter of animals. According to the Food and Drink Federation, food producers will need another 130,000 workers by 2024. Shortly after the result, Tim Lang, Professor at City University Centre for Food, tweeted: ‘Food Plan B now needed. Will the people who voted Brexit be prepared to dig for Britain, work in picking fields and factories for low pay?’

It’s not just production, either. Go into any restaurant kitchen in London, and chances are the first person you meet won’t have been born in the UK. Angela Hartnett, the Michelin-starred British chef of Italian and Irish heritage, recently told the Food Programme that 70 percent of her workforce are European migrants.

At the River Cafe, opened by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers in 1987, the likes of Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall learnt to cook with European ingredients, in European ways. And over the years, they turned us all into cosmopolitans. Now, the high street is full of affordable European-inspired eateries, from Carluccio’s to Cafe Rouge –and at home, most of us can cook pasta from scratch. This culture won’t be lost overnight, of course. But if our restaurants are understaffed, and our olives more expensive, it may wither.

A more immediate concern is nutrition. We are bombarded with headlines about the childhood obesity epidemic, and how children cannot concentrate in school due to hunger. Poorer families already struggle to afford fruit and vegetables, and in this context, it’s sobering to consider that 40 percent of those fresh fruit and vegetables come from the EU.

But the biggest unanswered question is one that loomed large during the referendum campaign: regulation. Newspapers brimmed with sensational stories about how the EU banned us from selling straight bananas, or prawn cocktail crisps. These myths (and they are myths) obscure the good work European food law has done over the years.

As well as protecting us through safety legislation, European law protects foods themselves. Traditional Specialty Guaranteed, Protected Geographical Indication, Protected Designation of Origin – the names are a mouthful, but they’ve added a great deal of value to British foods. And while the agreements underpinning them extend beyond European borders, they rely on reciprocal agreements that are now in jeopardy.

There are 73 protected British foods, from Cornish pasties to Scottish whisky. Altogether, they’re worth an estimated billion pounds to the UK, according to Matthew Callaghan of the UK Protected Food Names Association. What happens next? Well, we don’t know: perhaps Melton Mowbray pork pies will conquer the world, free of their European fetters. Or maybe everyone will start making cheap knock-offs.

Tim Lang argues that we will soon ‘wake up to the enormity of unravelling 43 years of co-negotiated food legislation’. But he has also spoken of the extraordinary and progressive food movement in the UK, and the need for this movement to press the establishment for a good food system; it seems that this movement will need to steel themselves for a long and important battle.

Olivia Potts is Spectator Life’s Vintage Chef columnist.


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