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Analysis of new data from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has revealed that the value of food exports to the European Union (EU) dropped by £2.4bn in the first 15 months after Brexit.
The data tracked exports from 1st January 2021, when the Brexit transition year ended, and showed that UK food exports had dropped by 19% to £10.4bn in the 15 months up to 31 March 2022.
This fall was driven by a decline in exports of perishable goods to Europe and beyond, ranging from British strawberries to cheese.
In fact, fruit and vegetable exports took the greatest hit, as figures were down 44% from £1.5bn in the 15 months before Brexit to £847m in the 15 months after.
Meat and fish exports weren’t far behind, falling 16%, from £3.5bn to £2.9bn, over the same period, while dairy exports also decreased 13% from £1.6bn to £1.4bn.
The impact of Brexit
This drop in exports is largely caused by tightening custom requirements and long port delays, meaning many UK food producers are no longer able to send perishable goods to the EU. The increase in red tape and costs now means it is difficult for British producers to export fresh produce profitably.
In fact, according to Dominic Goudie, head of international trade at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), “There was an abrupt drop-off in trade in the first months of 2021 as businesses adapted to the new trade arrangements with the EU and used up stockpiled goods.
“The new trade deal has introduced additional complexity and costs and, in some cases, these mean UK-EU trade is no longer viable.”
This is understandable, as Maroš Šefčovič, vice-president of the European Commission and Brexit negotiator, explained to The Guardian, “One result of Brexit was the return of a customs border between the EU and Great Britain. This means paperwork for virtually every product shipping between our markets. It means checks on thousands of goods being carried out on a daily basis.
“Brexit has increased red tape, not decreased it. It is no longer as frictionless and dynamic as before.”
Continuing to recover
While 2021 was a particularly difficult year for British exports, there was an uplift in trade during the first quarter of 2022.
Dominic explained, “Trade has since recovered quite well compared to longer-term averages, with exports to Europe in the first quarter of 2022 recovering to match sales in 2020. Trade also continues elsewhere and there are good opportunities for UK exports of food and drink to recover and grow.”
This uplift was evident in HMRC data which revealed that in the first three months of 2022, exports to the Republic of Ireland jumped by 67% while exports to France rose by 28.5% and the Netherlands by 40%.
Dominic added, “We recently published our trade and investment strategy for food and drink that sets out a series of wider practical proposals to help grow UK exports of food and drink. These include driving up exports, ensuring the UK is a global hub for innovation and research and development investment, and making sure imports support consumer choice, affordability and the UK’s food security.
“Opportunities also remain to improve the implementation of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement to help exporters increase their trade with the EU.”
Discussing these opportunities, a DEFRA spokesperson told Speciality Food, “The pandemic inevitably affected the amount we were able to export over the last few years.
“However, this year demand for our high-quality food and drink is growing around the world and we are backing our producers with new trade attaches, by opening more export markets with over 70 new trade deals and by launching a fund to help almost 8000 SMEs take advantage of these new opportunities.
“Our new 12-point Export Strategy is opening doors for British businesses, ensuring fantastic goods and services are ‘Made in the UK, Sold to the World’.”