Even a smooth Brexit will be a challenge for many in the UK for whom dealing with friends, business partners or colleagues located across Europe is part of everyday life. So how do we prevent the increasingly haphazard exit from the EU undermining the food industry’s efforts not only to remain competitive, but also to meet international standards on sustainability and resource efficiency?
It is disturbing to see how fears over a no-deal Brexit are having an impact on people’s behaviour, with reports of food and other consumables being stockpiled. Whether this is due to ‘Project Fear’ or just natural caution does not distract from the risk of a messy or prolonged Brexit being a major concern for the UK food industry.
As the March deadline approaches, the emollient attitude of many business leaders who showed willingness to support Government ministers in the lead-up to Brexit has changed to frustration. Leading food sector bodies such as the National Farmers Union and the Food and Drink Federation have finally lost patience with ministers, saying they faced a “potential crisis”.
Many businesses diverting resources to prepare for no deal blame the Government for not listening to them months ago. Trade associations have now decided they can no longer support business as usual. They are refusing to collaborate with Government on issues that are not Brexit related, such as efforts to boost recycling or protect the environment.
The reality is that efforts to boost sustainability initiatives by food businesses and to develop a more circular economy are bound up in our membership of the EU, just as trade in food products and raw materials has become increasingly integrated with our European partners in the past 50 years.
The UK must match EU standards if we are to continue to trade with these partners. About 30 years ago Helmut Kohl (German Chancellor from 1982 to 1998) told Mrs. Thatcher that while German businesses were happy to sell to us in English, they wanted to buy from us in German. Now, if we are to sell to German or French companies, we need to work within EU rules – even after we leave.
Exasperated business leaders withdrawing collaboration on a range of environmental initiatives and consultations risks undermining the UK’s ability to match the global transition to a more circular economy. Our clients are uncertain how Brexit will impact on their investment plans; indecision, coupled with the risk of a messy exit, will continue to disrupt business; the undermining of initiatives and investment designed to curb industrial carbon emissions is the all too likely result.
The food and drink industry and those of us working with it need to hear some positive messages from Government to lift the gloom about Brexit. This is much more evident in Edinburgh than it is in Westminster, with greater support for bio-energy after the current incentive regime ends. Brexit is not an excuse for policy-makers to curtail the limited progress being made towards cleaner growth.
A subsidiary of one of the UK’s leading water companies has joined calls for greater support for food and drink manufacturers to invest in renewables and build more on-site AD plants. However, their message is flawed. Yes, businesses must develop a culture with resource efficiency at its core. Also, more factory sites should be encouraged to invest in on-site bio-energy. But, distracted by Brexit, Whitehall must be persuaded that on-site bioenergy can both save costs and make a business more sustainable.
Our food industry must not allow this policy vacuum to undermine efforts to move towards more responsible resource use. In our experience, while many multinationals get it, it is the smaller and medium-sized food and beverage companies that need support to invest in being green and clean.
On-site bio-energy still has a major role to play across the food production chain. British bio-energy companies can offer solutions at a farm and factory level to allow food producers and manufacturers to make better use of wastes and residues, as Clearfleau is doing. Notwithstanding the current confusion and uncertainty, this must be a priority for the food sector in post-Brexit Britain.