IFST's EU Exit Challenges

Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST) chose to take a neutral stance in the referendum on the UK exiting the European Union, recognising that its diverse membership straddled both sides of the debate and were unlikely to speak as one voice on the issue. Now the decision has been made to exit the Union, IFST, with its independent voice, has an important role in highlighting issues we see as critical in ensuring the best possible outcomes during the negotiations that will now follow.

We call on government to have a food agenda in any planning and negotiations on the future relationships with the EU, to ensure the following outcomes:

  1. The legislative framework in place facilitates not just trade and innovation, but provides an effective and clear system for the assessment and management of food safety risks and standards, to protect consumers and maintain and further build confidence in the UK food system.

    Any new legislation needs to be evidence, science and risk-based, and informed by national regulators and scientists with the appropriate skills and competencies to assess new science and technology, and translate current knowledge into clear and robust risk management requirements for the food system stakeholders. Moreover, all stakeholders must have confidence in the process for developing new legislation, with appropriate consultation undertaken, e.g. with local authorities, food industry and other stakeholders.

    The current UK food legislative framework pulls heavily on EU legislation, and the scientific advice of the independent European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), a risk assessment organisation with access to significant expertise and resources. UK government agencies responsible for food safety, food standards and the safety of chemicals used in the food system can currently utilise EFSA for scientific opinions. They cooperate with their European counterparts, sharing knowledge and expertise to contribute to the safety, quality and integrity of the flow of food within Europe and the global markets.

  2. UK research continues to rank highly in terms of productivity and impact, with access to the best international partners, and effective and facilitative funding models.

    The outputs of UK science must not be compromised by Britain’s exit from the EU: Research funding must be at an appropriate level to drive scientific discovery and innovation to further the UK’s international competitiveness and the progression of research of global importance. Furthermore, barriers must not form that dissuade researchers from being based in the UK or inhibit the current level of collaboration with EU scientists.

    According to a 2013 report prepared by Elsevier for the UK’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)[1], the UK currently “punches above its weight” as a research nation. While the UK has maintained an apparently stable researcher count in recent years (262,303 researchers in 2011), increases in Higher Education researcher numbers and an influx of increasing numbers of new PhD graduates gaining their qualification within the UK, mask a high degree of international mobility amongst active UK researchers. There has been a net outflow of these UK migratory researchers, who also tend to be more senior researchers, with those who are predominantly based in countries outside the UK more senior than those predominantly based in the UK.

    Countries across the EU represent some of the UK’s largest and closest collaboration partners in terms of shared funding, flow of research students and staff, and the production of research papers. Currently a quarter of all public funding for research in the UK comes from the EU, approximately £1 billion per year, more than is paid in. This is against a background level of UK public and private sector contributions that place the UK at 20th in the international league table of total R&D spend as a proportion of GDP. (Hook and Szomszor, 2016[2])

  3. The UK maintains access to much needed skills in food science and technology, across government, academia and industry.

    It is vital that scientific and technological skills can be accessed from a global pool of talent to manage and regulate a complex food chain, develop new knowledge, understanding and tools relevant to the food system, and teach and train future food scientists and technologists. 

    Scientific and technological roles in food production are often highly specialised roles, requiring tertiary education and/or technical apprenticeships, and continuous professional development. Many of these roles would be classified as high-skill Professional or Associate professional roles by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, skills which were considered to be lacking in the most recent (2015) Employer Skills Survey of 91,000 employers. The survey noted that the lack of analytical skills, in particular, “could have serious implications on the ability of staff to respond to increasingly dynamic workplaces and developments in technology and thus restrict establishments’ potential for innovation and long-term growth”. The lack of analytical skills will also endanger good enforcement of current or future food standards. This in turn jeopardizes food safety and consumer health and confidence.

  4. The UK has access to a sustainable food supply

    To ensure we have access to sustainable diets in the UK, i.e. sufficiency of a safe, affordable food supply that is nutritious and adequate to maintain health, and minimises environmental impacts.

    The UK is not self sufficient, requiring imports of food and beverages with a value (£38.5 bn) greater than the value of exports (£18 bn)[3]. The value of imports is greater than the value of exports in each of the broad categories of food, feed and drink except beverages, with the highest deficit in fresh fruit and vegetables, followed by meat. In 2014, only 54% of food consumed in the UK was of UK origin, with 27% coming from EU countries. The UK food industry is therefore highly integrated with the EU food industry, with interdependent food supply networks, providing for imports of food commodities that are at a price, variety, quality and environmental footprint that meets the needs and aspirations of UK stakeholders. Changes to this supply chain could drive the sourcing of a greater proportion of food commodities from non-EU countries, with potential impacts on one or more of the above factors from the effort to maintain equivalent safety, quality and environmental standards at a competitive price.

[1] (2013) International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base – accessed on the 19th July at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/263729/bis-13-1297-international-comparative-performance-of-the-UK-research-base-2013.pdf

[2] Hook and Szomszor, Digital Research Reports, May 2016. Examining implications of Brexit for the UK research base – accessed on 13th July, 2016 at https://www.digital-science.com/resources/digital-research-reports/digital-research-report-examining-implications-of-brexit-for-the-uk-research-base/

[3] Defra (2015). Food Statistics Pocketbook 2015