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Brexit offers U.S. export opportunity amid pandemic

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact in the United Kingdom with the current death toll reaching some 18,000 and the likelihood that we will remain in lock down for anywhere between the next 4 – 8 weeks.

The last few weeks, though, have shown us both how fragile our fresh food supply chains are; but they have also shown us how resilient they can be too.

While initial modest panic buying in the UK led to supermarket shelves being cleared of some products, most retailers have ensured supplies are getting through. With some exceptions, consumers can get what they want — even if some products are being limited.

For fresh produce businesses heavily reliant on supplying the foodservice sector — where demand all but disappeared overnight — things will very tough now. It reiterates the need for fresh produce companies to have balance in terms of customers.

At the same time, it could be that COVID-19 will see online shopping systems come in to their own, as consumers look at different ways of buying food and drink.

Labour becomes a global issue

Every business will have someone affected by the virus and given there is already a shortage of labour, companies will undoubtedly find it difficult to find get the right staff in the right place at the right time.

Imports of fruit and vegetables from the likes of Holland, Italy, France or Spain might also become more difficult. In Spain, clients have told us of labour shortages in packing plants, as well as concerns that if trucks leave the country, drivers might not be allowed back in.

Brexit still matters

COVID-19 has all but sidelined the issue of Brexit from the media, but behind the scenes, this is now, where one can assume, the serious hard work begins. Despite leaving the EU at the end of January, our final departure from the EU is still far away in terms of how it will work on the ground.

The UK has stated that it seeks to develop new trade arrangements with many other countries around the world – this includes the United States, where President Trump has promised the UK, he will negotiate a “quick and outstanding” deal – the concern in the UK is though – for who?

There are concerns in the UK farming and food sector about the prospect of highly competitive U.S. poultry, beef and soybeans being able to enter the UK market to the detriment of UK farmers.

And a trade deal between the UK and the U.S. could see increased imports of products such as apples, pears, grapes, berry fruit and citrus from the U.S.

Everyone wants an end to the Brexit process – business, politicians and the voters. The stakes are still high though and Prime Minister Boris Johnson must find a way of resolving them when the issues are still complex and full of political, economic and social challenges. But in the next few months, we all probably want an end to COVID–19 even more.

Testing resilience

The coming weeks, undoubtedly, are going to test the resilience of every business in the UK produce supply chain. Farmers, packers and food businesses can carry on for a short period, but if this goes on for many months, there could be those who just can’t deal with the pressure.

For most of the UK supply chain, the whole of 2020 will be challenging and uncertain. COVID-19 certainly won’t last forever. However, the impacts of what we are going through — and what lies ahead for consumers and UK produce companies alike — may well last for some time to come, and we all need to be prepared.

John Giles is a Divisional Director with Promar International, the UK-based value chain consulting arm of Genus plc. He has worked on produce sector assignments in over 60 countries around the world. He can be contacted at john.giles@genusplc.com