Bargaining Chips

26th January, 2017

Getting the right deals for food in post-Brexit trade negotiations is prominent in the mind of many in the UK food business. It’s also of huge strategic importance to everybody in the UK – food is a daily necessity, and has a key role in sustainability, health and climate change agendas. But when you look at the numbers (Table 1), food may be a long way from being a top priority for most of our trading partners.  We certainly can’t assume that food will drive trade deals.  And at worst, it could become a small and disposable bargaining chip in trade negotiations.

Table 1: UK food imports from some major trading partners as a proportion of trade.

Note: the trading partners selected for analysis are all major trading partners with the UK, and major exporters of food to the UK (column a). They are also represent a range of existing trade deals with the EU that will have to be replaced by the UK: South Africa has a Free Trade Agreement, the EU and Indonesia are likely to start negotiating one, and the USA has pledged the UK an early trade deal.

We need food imports

More than half of the UK’s food comes from overseas, and we are highly reliant on imports for some critical parts of our diet, most notably fresh fruit and vegetables. The UK imported over $62 billion of food in 2015, which is just under 10% of the total value of all the goods we imported. And food is a significant proportion of the goods we import from some trading partners, for example reaching over 20% of the value of the goods we import from South Africa (Table 1, column b).

They need us much less

But for any one of our major trading partners, food exports to the UK accounts for less than 1% of the total value of their exports, even for our major food suppliers, like the EU (Table 1, column c).  And note, our figures only cover goods; the trade in services makes food an even smaller proportion of total trade.  So when the trade negotiators get together, food will rarely be uppermost in their minds.

Looking inside these small proportions, the UK can represent a meaningful proportion of the total food exports of some trading partners, such as the EU. But for other key trading partners, such as the US and Indonesia, food exports to the UK represent a very small part of overall food exports, in the range of 1-1.5% (Table 1, column d).

How will this play out in negotiations?

The danger is that food is not going to be on the agenda of trade deals. This might play out in either of two ways. Either food gets sidelined behind bigger economic sectors such as aircraft and vehicles (USA), precious metals (South Africa), footwear and apparel (Indonesia) or vehicles (EU). Alternatively, because food is strategically important to the UK, our negotiators could try to get good deals on food in return for terms of trade that are favourable to sectors that are of more importance to our trading partners. For the food sector, the latter option is clearly preferable, and we need to be making the case – beyond trade - for the strategic importance of food to the UK’s health and environmental sustainability.

We need to be making the case – beyond trade - for the strategic importance of food to the UK’s health and environmental sustainability.