A matter of opinion: emergency exit

Categories: Reflections and opinions

Christine Elliott, chair of the Trustees of Borough Market, on why it is essential that the Market’s voice is heard in the debate around Brexit

Such is the sound and fury surrounding Brexit, it is tempting to steer clear of this most divisive of topics. But at Borough Market, where the potential consequences are so grave, we simply don’t have that option—we have a voice, and we need to use it constructively.

Borough Market is an international institution, reflective of the global city whose people it serves. For our specialist importers in particular—the sellers of French cheeses, Spanish jamón, Italian truffles, Greek olive oil—a disorderly exit from the EU will be disruptive and value-destructive. There is no nationally coherent contingency plan. They import small-batch perishable products, so they can’t stockpile. They have multiple complex relationships with very small-scale EU based suppliers, so they can’t focus their efforts on just one or two major supply chains. Nor can they look elsewhere: a specialist seller of French cheese can’t buy from anywhere other than France. As a result, there is the very real prospect of businesses that have been built over many years, with great love and expertise, being destroyed almost overnight if their needs aren’t taken into account. That would be a tragedy.

As well as highlighting these immediate worries, we need to be part of the conversation about what the post-Brexit future of British food production looks like. We can all agree that the status quo is problematic: we are too reliant on imports, the structure of incentives encourages destructive monocultures, and our systems are geared towards the mass production of ultra-processed foods whose apparent cheapness hides the public cost of low pay, ill health and environmental damage. It is essential that this situation is not worsened by Brexit.

Standards and sustainability
While far from perfect, the single market has imposed onto food producers a vast array of rules covering phytosanitary and environmental standards, safety, hygiene and workers’ rights. Departing the EU in a way that allows food standards and sustainability to be undermined rather than enhanced would be devastating for consumers and the environment, and make survival even harder for producers like ours, who are determined to do more, not less, than the minimum currently required of them. We need to be able to trust that these basic standards will be protected.

In trade negotiations with other non-EU countries, we would be very concerned if the standards currently demanded of food producers were undermined in order to get better deals on, for example, financial services—we should be looking to make British food production more self-sufficient, more sustainable, healthier and more equitable, not surrendering to the incoming march of chlorinated chicken. The problem is that developing a coherent food strategy takes time—you can’t just switch on an orchard, for example—and right now, time is not a luxury that Brexit affords us.

Whatever happens, we at Borough Market will do whatever we can to ensure that people continue to have access to the best British and international produce, created with a clear commitment to sustainability and ethics. All we can hope is that the solution to the Brexit dilemma helps us rather than hinders us in this aim.