Brexit's blight on Scottish food and drink industry is making the cost of living crisis worse – Mairi Gougeon

The cost-of-living and energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, rising inflation and the aftermath of the Covid pandemic is written about and discussed often.

Some of these are hopefully short-term issues and can be recovered from. Another problem, however, is contributing to the hardship faced by Scottish households and will do so for the long term: Brexit.

A recent study, by Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, suggests that household food bills have gone up by £210 primarily driven by extra checks and requirements on goods due to Brexit, with much of the cost passed onto consumers. That’s a cost Scotland should not have to bear, not least because this hard Brexit was imposed on us against our democratic will.

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It's not just individual households, Brexit continues to pose huge challenges to Scotland’s food-and-drink industry with the loss of free trade and new obstacles to the movement of goods. This sector is one of the key drivers of the economy with an annual turnover worth £15 billion and overseas export sales of more than £6 billion, representing nearly a third of all UK food exports.

We are fortunate to have some of the most amazing and delicious products and pure natural resources of anywhere in the world: our beef, our lamb, our venison and in our waters we have salmon and seafood, like langoustines, lobsters and crab. Along with our cheese, baked goods, craft beer and spirits, including of course, whisky, these are world-class products in demand across the globe.

Producers benefit from the very features Scotland is known for: beautiful rugged landscapes, fertile land, clear waters and clean air. I am extremely proud of the international reputation for quality and provenance that this country’s talented farmers, fishermen, manufacturers, and processors have built.

During my recent trip to Paris, in the run-up to St Andrew’s Day, I saw first-hand how sought-after Scottish produce is in that market. Little wonder that France is the largest food-and-drink export market for Scotland, valued at just over £1 billion last year, which was up 12 per cent from pre-pandemic levels, despite significant hurdles and bottlenecks caused by Brexit.

France is also the largest export destination by volume for Scotch whisky and Atlantic Scottish salmon. To mark St Andrew’s Day, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Development International offices in Paris partnered with Salmon Scotland to celebrate 30 years of Scottish salmon’s ‘label rouge’ status. It was also an opportunity to promote the excellence of Scotland’s food-and-drink products to more than 250 key French and other stakeholders, customers and politicians. The 10,000 people in Scotland whose jobs depend on the salmon industry understand the crucial importance of such powerful advocacy.

Boris Johnson poses with two crabs at Stromness harbour, but by getting Brexit done, he has damaged Scotland's food-and-drink industry (Picture: Robert Perry/WPA pool/Getty Images)

France is not only the second biggest general export market for Scotland, but with more than 160 French-owned companies and 28,000-plus employees, it is also the second largest investor and foreign employer after the US. Unsurprisingly, the Scottish Government has recognised France as one of Scotland's most important and strategic economic partners.

We also face common challenges with France, notably on food security and a sustainable green transition. We value ongoing collaboration with the French government on matters including low-carbon farming and soil preservation, but again Brexit threatens to stand in the way of progress. Westminster’s Retained EU law bill threatens to remove 47 years of EU law from our statute books in a reckless move to de-regulate, putting at risk the high environmental standards that are already in place in Scotland.

But the Scottish Government will continue to look EU-wards for solutions to shared challenges and we are following with interest the EU’s actions on food security. I have written to the European Commissioner for Agriculture, asking if it is possible for Scotland to join the European Food Security Crisis Preparedness and Response Mechanism (EFSCM) as a group member, or explore other means of co-operation with the EU.

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Engaging with the EU and the UK Government was one of the recommendations of a task force established with the food-and-drink sector earlier this year to monitor and identify potential disruption to the food-and-drink supply chain as a result of the war in Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis.

We are already doing all we can within our resources and powers to help the sector. We will continue to support the Scotland Food & Drink Recovery Plan with £15 million of Scottish Government funding over 2020-2023.

Led by trade association Scotland Food & Drink, the plan aims to mitigate the damage inflicted by the pandemic and Brexit. We recently awarded 33 food-and-drink businesses grants worth £10 million as part of our food processing, marketing and cooperation grant scheme. We are providing £2.7 million funding over 2019-2024 towards the Scottish Development International-led Scotland Food & Drink Export Plan to help the industry identify opportunities across key markets globally. We have also invested £190,000 in the Scottish Grocers’ Federation’s “Go Local” grant scheme this year to support convenience stores throughout Scotland to provide dedicated, long-term display space for locally sourced Scottish products.

We can all help our food-and-drink sector, and the jobs and businesses it supports, by buying local and Scottish whenever we can. Supermarket shelves are filled with great Scottish produce right now, including festive essentials like carrots, potatoes, cream, bread, ham and, of course, brussels sprouts.

Brexit also hampers domestic production, with labour shortages caused by the loss of freedom of movement. These affect cafes, restaurants and hotels too where so many great Scottish products are turned into excellent meals. The hospitality industry, especially in rural and island areas, has struggled and is continuing to struggle, due to a lack of people to live and work in their communities.

No matter how innovative the industry is or how wonderful our produce, if we cannot get it to markets, the sector will face challenges. Now, with clear evidence of Brexit causing food bills to rocket, we are all affected. There are many factors influencing food inflation, but other countries and citizens don’t have to contend with Brexit. It is only with independence and a return to the EU that these key barriers – to trade and to labour – will be reversed.

Mairi Gougeon is SNP MSP for Angus North and Mearns and Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands

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