A matter of import

What could be more British than roast beef with all the trimmings?

Plenty if the beef turns out to be from Brazil, the potatoes from Israel and the green beans are from Kenya.

But it’s a state of affairs that is becoming more and more common in this country.

Farmers may find it frustrating but if you take a look around most people’s kitchens you are likely to find a pretty wide selection of food from foreign shores.

Latest trade figures show that imports of food, feed and drink into the UK have risen dramatically in the past decade.

In the early to mid-1990s, imports were around 14.9bn while exports stood at about 9.1bn.

Although by 2004 exports had reached 9.7bn, imports had risen by 47% to 21.9bn.

Some of these imports are crops and goods that it would be impossible to grow in Britain.

Global warming may mean temperatures are rising, but UK farmers won’t ever be able to swap their barley crop for bananas or their oats for olives.

But DEFRA figures show the UK’s self-sufficiency in staple British foods such as meat and fresh vegetables dropped by over 12% between 1991 and 2004, from 86.8% to 74.2%.

A glance along the supermarket shelves also confirms that our imports are not confined to the exotic crops that don’t suit the British climate.

It is a situation that some people – including the Prince of Wales – say is deeply worrying.

They argue that in an unsettled world it is vital the UK retains its food security rather than relying on the global market, and point out that cutting imports would cut food miles.

But others are pretty dismissive of this, arguing that UK farmers provide over 70% of food on the public’s plates and that is a healthy market share.

What exactly are we importing?

The answer to the “what” question boils down to meat (bacon, ham, pork, chicken, beef and veal), cheese, fresh and chilled vegetables, and wine.

The UK also consumes significant quantities of imported chocolate, frozen fish, juice, grapes, oil cake, mineral water, bread, crispbread and savoury biscuits.

France may be the country that many farmers love to hate, but consumers obviously love it, as it is the one that ships most food to our island.

Last year consumers ate and drank their way through 2.7bn worth of French wine, spirits, cheese, cereals and water.

The other big winners when it comes to selling food to Britain are the Netherlands, Irish Republic, Germany, Spain and Italy.

And why are we importing it?

The question of why so much food gets imported has a more complex answer.

Carmen Suarez, NFU chief economist, says that because the UK’s self-sufficiency in indigenous-type foods has been falling over the past 15 years, the rise in imports cannot be totally attributed to changes in taste or a massive shift towards consumption of non-indigenous food.

So what are the reasons?

  • We are moving away from primary production

Imports have been rising as a consequence of that inevitable process of development, she says, which leads countries to move away from producing basic commodities like food, coal and steel and specialise in higher-tech, higher value products.

“This happens at different moments in different countries and we are more advanced ‘down the process’ than other countries,” she says.

“One of the reasons we are importing more is because we are trading more, which is the result of the process of liberalisation, both at the WTO level and at the level of regional trade agreements.”

  • Consumers want more variety

Trade is driven by factors such as consumers wanting to have access to more variety, particularly on a year-round basis, she says.

We may criticise shoppers for buying strawberries in January, but year-round seasonal food availability is not a luxury that will go out of fashion in a hurry.

  • Sterling has got stronger

The strengthening pound has made imports cheaper and more attractive, while exports have become more expensive and thus less competitive, adds Ms Suarez.

“Undoubtedly, the strengthening of sterling with respect to currencies such as the US dollar and the Brazilian real in recent years has played a part in the upsurge of imports.”

  • Organic food is more popular

The government has set a target for 70% of the indigenous organic market to be met by domestic production by 2010, but the Soil Association confirms that last year 47% of primary organic produce was imported.

That this figure was higher than in 2003 is something that worries and disappoints the organisation.

“It is clear that British farmers could supply more of these products,” says a spokesman.

  • We have more regulations here

Mick Sloyan of the British Pig Executive says that if you look at a product like pigmeat, then the main trigger for high levels of imports in recent years has been regulation, which has driven up British farmers’ costs.

“What has happened in recent years is that regulations imposed on us, along with issues like Classical Swine Fever and foot-and-mouth have added costs.

That has affected our relative competitiveness, which has drawn in imports.”

Is there some good news?

Yes, more positive news is on the horizon, albeit on the exports front rather than imports.

Amanda Kamin, spokeswoman for Food From Britain, says UK food exports are actually looking pretty healthy for 2005.

“If we continue as we are for the rest of the year, we are on track to break the 10bn barrier for the first time in about a decade.

Britain has a reputation for quality and value-added products and there are a lot of countries that are interested in that,” she says.

Ms Kamin says whisky is the biggest seller, but bread, pastry, cakes, breakfast cereals, beer, soft drinks and regional cheeses are also going well.

Ireland tops the list of countries buying British food, followed by the USA, France, Spain and Germany.

What can farmers do?

“We are an island nation, so I think we are always going to have a trade gap,” says Ms Kamin.

“But we do think producers should be taking more advantage of export opportunities and recognise the opportunities there are.

There are new markets out there in eastern Europe and Asia which farmers – even small producers – could look into.”