Food Sovereignty in a Brexit Era
If the British were worried about what being in the EU was doing to their food sovereignty, they are now starting to worry what will happen when they leave.
BY JACOB VAN DE BEETEN
Food and politics are inseparable. Nowhere has this become more evident than in the post-Brexit United Kingdom. In the months after the vote, the consequences of Brexit on foodstuff made many headlines, like this one accusing Unilever of "weaponis[ing]’ Marmite in ‘Brexit blackmail”. British tabloids went crazy when Unilever decided to raise the price of Marmite, a typical British foodstuff, due to the falling exchange rate of the pound. Even parliamentarians joined the debate: one MP stated he would no longer eat Marmite, but switch to Vegemite, in an attempt to stand up to this atrocious exploitation of British consumers. Another contended that “Marmite is the quintessential British product […] and it is outrageous that Unilever are using Brexit as an excuse for their profiteering.”
There is clear irony here: as soon as the British people decide to “take back control” of their own country, Marmite – one of the symbols of British identity – becomes more expensive and less accessible. It is just one example of how Britain is emotionally invested in an idea of ‘national food’, whereby the European Union poses a threat to its 'food sovereignty'. But is this sentiment really justified?
Food can be used very effectively in nationalist messaging, because of how meaningful it is to people. It is literally what sustains us and keeps us alive, and, just as importantly, it comes with strong cultural roots and identities attached to it. Just think about any country, and I am sure foods pop up in your mind: France"? Fromage! Croissant! Italy? Pizza! Russia? Vodka!
So it should come as no surprise that food has played such a big role in the way Britain - a country as protective of its culture as it is fond of eating - perceives the European Union. The general public of the UK has a more problematic relationship with the EU than that of any other member state (fun fact: the word ‘Eurosceptic’ was actually coined by The Times). Food is at the heart of this sentiment. British newspapers have time and again talked about EU regulations as attacks on British ‘food sovereignty’ by imposing limits on what the British eat.
Throughout the years, British newspaper headlines have claimed that, due to EU laws, Scotch whisky must be handled as a dangerous chemical, British cheese faces extinction, British mince pies will have to be renamed, mushy peas will be outlawed, and lorry drivers can no longer eat ‘British Breakfast’, etc. My favourite claim is the one concerning rhubarb, courtesy of The Sun:
“Crackpot Euro chiefs have decreed British rhubarb must be straight. Farmers will have to throw away crooked stalks under barmy new rules. The order follows a review of community fruit and vegetable standards by the EU agricultural directorate.”
In a fascinating attempt to counter public opinion and set the record straight, the office of the European Commission in the UK has rebuked hundreds of these "euromyths”. To this particular 1996 article, the Commission dryly responded that it had never planned to set, or recommend, marketing rules for rhubarb.
But the damage had – of course – already been done. I find it especially fascinating that the article talks about ‘British rhubarb’, as if the imaginary regulation would violate British ‘food sovereignty’ by only targeting rhubarb grown in Britain or as if British rhubarb were any different from the homegrown rhubarb in my parents backyard, or the rhubarb grown in any other EU country for that matter.
So one can wonder whether the attitude of these newspapers is justified. More than most European countries, the UK strongly relies on food imports. National food production makes up only 60% of the total food consumption on the British insula, so the UK annually imports up to 21 billion euros of foodstuff from other EU countries. This factor explains why Brexit had an immediate impact on food prices: the value of the pound dropped by more than 10%, causing a surge in food prices. The MPs who slammed Unilever for increasing the price of Marmite failed to appreciate this consequence of Brexit (although this ‘quintessential’ British product is exclusively made of British ingredients, other materials involved in its production, such as packing and machines, come from abroad, explaining its increased cost).
It's also worth noting that the EU is all about protecting the ‘authenticity’ of traditionally made products through a system of Geographical Indicators (GIs). In practice, the GI system ensures - with use of Intellectual Property Law - that only whiskey made in Scotland can be called ‘scotch whiskey’, only ham from Parma can be called ‘Parma ham’ and only white cheese from Greece can be called ‘Feta’ - to list just a few examples. The latter is particularly interesting, because Feta is not an actual place in Greece. This did not stop the European Commission from arguing that Feta “is so closely connected to Greece as to be identified as an inherently Greek product”, when it sought to ban the labelling of U.S.-produced white cheese as ‘Feta’.
The EU does this not for sentimental reasons, but because there is a strong economic incentive to trademark these names: GI products are on average sold at over double the price of non-GI products. After all, what consumer would prefer ‘cured ham’ over ‘Parma ham’, a name that clearly signals quality? I for one would certainly prefer to eat Feta from Greece than ‘white cheese’ from Alabama. In this way, foodstuffs' national identities (and often, the meanings that these identities conjure) can mean multi-million-dollar profits for European countries.
This explains the anxiety of Scotch producers, who are now afraid that their whisky will lose its protected status after the UK leaves the Union. After all, the EU can negotiate on par with the United States about what qualifies as ‘Feta’, but it remains to be seen whether the UK government can leverage the same negotiating power for its products. If the British were worried about what being in the EU was doing to their 'food sovereignty', it seems that they are now starting to worry what will happen when they leave.
When it comes to food, Brexit is a reminder that it - and the international food trade - is both a necessity and big business. Great Britain's ‘food sovereignty’ will come - literally - at a cost. Not only will food prices increase, but the protected status of ‘quintessential’ British products might well be at stake. In other words: national foods are worth big bucks, but succumbing to sentimentalism and turning one's back on the reality of international 'food interdependence' is a recipe for disaster. Take it from the British.
JACOB VAN DE BEETEN is currently based in London, where he studies constitutional law, and is part of the 1989 Generation Initiative, a think-tank aiming to reinvigorate Europe - just like AWE.