What will the impact be on Yorkshire’s restaurant industry in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit? Hospitality lecturer Norman Dinsdale explores the possibilities.
Back in June 2016, the majority of the British population developed an appetite to leave the European Union. Quite how much thought was given to the future of their food supplies is debatable.
If they even gave second thoughts to where their favourite restaurants would get their food supplies is truly doubtful and if they gave more than a moment’s consideration to the cost of restaurant meals in the future, scores low on the scale of probabilities.
What then for the United Kingdom’s restaurant industry? Is the UK niche, independent, restaurant industry resilient enough, smart enough and capable enough to withstand any potential food shortage post-Brexit?
The first indications, through informal chats with colleagues in the industry, are an emphatic yes, though with qualification. Without a doubt there will be disruption of some sort but most seem to regard any potential food shortage as being little more than a short-term blip and the product of scaremongering by politicians and fervent Remainers, though there are serious concerns regarding the potential food cost rises.
There is understandable anger from some independent restauranteurs and chef patrons, the backbone of the independent restaurant sector.
For many years the UK’s agricultural community did very well in providing provisions for the food service industry, long before joining the Common Market and, ultimately, the EU. Back then restaurateurs and chefs had to juggle their menus according to the seasons. The supply of what were considered exotic foods was, at best, haphazard, at worst, none existent. Nowadays, as a nation we have come to expect all varieties of foodstuffs to be available at the drop of a hat.
Just take a stroll down any supermarket aisle to see the abundant variety, unheard of even 10 years ago, let alone 15, 20, 25 or even 40, around the time the UK joined the Common Market.
What then can chefs and restaurateurs do to get through the first few months of uncertainty, if indeed there will be shortages? First, I believe it is important to understand where our food in the UK comes from. These facts are readily available if you know where to look, or indeed have the time.
As a chef and academic I am fortunate in knowing where to look and having a reasonable amount of time to do the searching.
Data sets from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the nation’s food chain show quite clearly, for 2017, that we still produce at least half of the food which we consume compared to just 30 per cent of food stuffs imported from the EU. A further 11 per cent is imported from other areas of the world.
Compare that to the numbers from nearly 30 years ago and there has been a steady but significant decline in home-produced foods from 66 per cent in 1988 whilst our foods imported from the EU, or what was still the European Community (EC), were nearly half what they are today at just 18 per cent.
Food imported from the USA has remained stable at four per cent of imports whilst we are importing less from the Australasian countries of Australia and New Zealand. Our imports from Africa have reduced, those from Asian countries have remained relatively stable, whilst those from South American countries show a significant increase over the years, mostly due to banana and other exotic fruit imports.
Although these statistics do not give an indication of the type of foods imported we should recognise that if we do crash out of the EU there will be other markets available, willing to supply our needs. As a simple example, several years ago we used to import most of our apples from South Africa. That was only overtaken by imports from France in recent years and apple production in France suffered a four per cent lower yield in 2017 with an associated cost increase of six per cent on the previous year.
We could comfortably go back to South Africa or even strike a deal with Turkey, whose apple production is increasing year on year.
The decline in imports from Australia was mostly due to EU rules and quotas and a ban on beef products from that continent, supposedly due to the perceived poor quality, welfare and environmental standards. There is a good chance that trade between the UK and Australia will increase post Brexit, bringing benefits to food service operators and the general public. Ministers from both countries have already met to discuss any future trading relationship.
I’m not suggesting that we return to the dreary potato, cabbage and turnip diet of the post war years and early 1960s but we should, as a nation, be prepared and able to produce a lot more of our own food, paying our farmers a decent return for their produce and sourcing those foods we currently import from the EU from other markets, ready and willing to supply us.
Norman Dinsdale is a senior lecturer at Sheffield Business School, Sheffield Hallam University, having spent over 40 years in the international hospitality industry.