The “biggest issue for this generation,” is how Ian Wright, Director General for the Food & Drink Federation labelled Brexit – the topic for The 6th Food Symposium held at City University this week by the Food Research Collaboration.

Just what are the implications of the UK potentially leaving the EU? It’s a meaty topic. Food and agriculture are central elements in the EU structure, but politicians and food industry organisations have so far stayed away from raising issues for or against leaving the EU. To get the debate going, the panel speakers represented different sectors of society including the food industry, farming unions, EU food policy experts, consumer organisations and animal welfare organisations. The lack of political representation underlined just how contentious the topic is.

So what light can be cast on the implications for food of the UK leaving the EU?

Food deficit

To provide some background, UK food production has been declining for years, unlike many other EU countries. This has led a widening gap between imports and exports – the UK food trade gap is currently £21bn in deficit, meaning we are heavily dependent on food imports. More than a quarter of all food consumed in the UK originates from other EU countries, around half is produced in the UK. The UK food industry employs about 3.4 million people, many who are EU immigrants.

Skills shortage

Employment was one of the main issues raised by Peter Backman, Managing Director at Horizons FS. There is currently a skills gap in the industry of about 100,000 people. Food service businesses employ chefs, waiters and managers from across the EU – there is no doubt that labour availability would be a major risk factor of Brexit. Jamie Oliver once famously stated that ‘if we didn’t have European immigrants all my restaurants would close tomorrow’. He has a point.

Off the menu

Food legislation and the trade implications of leaving the EU’s single market are also to be considered. Jenny Morris, Principle Food Policy Officer at the Institute of Food Policy Integration and Protection, warned that in order to continue to import and export food to the EU, the UK would still be subject to EU food regulation, without having the opportunity to shape its developments in the European Parliament. As one speaker said: “if you’re not at the table, you’re off the menu”.

If Brexit was to happen, the UK would most likely be trading under the rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), meaning that over 100 new trade agreements and import tariffs would have to be re-negotiated.

David Baldock, Director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy, also highlighted that Brexit carries a significant risk for environmental objectives. The UK has responded to the current EU framework of binding environmental legislation with the development of a new wave of “green” industries. Global frameworks would most likely not have the same stringency.

The panel also speculated that the repercussions of leaving the EU could lead to a fragmented UK, with Scotland and Northern Ireland potentially moving towards independence. Most Scottish farmers are reliant on EU subsidies and people in Scotland would be more likely to vote to stay in Europe.