We take the food on our plates so much for granted that we tend to forget that the EU engineered a secure supply after a period of shortage, disruption and even famine within Europe.
Policies from the EU’s predecessor to maximise production by subsidising farmers after the second world war brought rationing to an end and ushered in a period of plenty.
The UK has not been self-sufficient in terms of food since the 18th century and depends on imports. We produce just over half the food we consume, while trade with the EU accounts for more than a quarter of our supply.
More than half of the UK’s food will come from overseas within a generation, as a rising population and stalling farm productivity combine to erode what remains of the UK’s self-sufficiency, according to farming leaders.
Most of our fruit and vegetables are imported from European neighbours. In return, we send Europe meat, drink and cereals, but our food trade gap with Europe is £21bn.
The EU has also given us a whole series of regulations covering food safety, hygiene, and the composition of food and labelling. After 20 years of negotiation, a standard form of EU ingredient labelling was introduced in 1998, enabling consumers to see what was in their food. Scientific scrutiny of the claims manufacturers made about the nutrition and health properties of their products came in 2006.
The European Commission should come up with legislative proposals for mandatory country origin labelling of certain foods, such as milk, dairy and meat products, MEPs said in another resolution on the matter on Thursday (12 May).
The ease of travel through the EU has transformed our food culture so that today British children are likely to name pizza and pasta as their number one foods rather than the meat and two veg of previous generations’ dinner plates.
Nearly three-quarters of the food and drink industry favours remaining in the EU, according to its trade body, the Food and Drink Federation. It cites access to raw materials, the trade benefits of the single market and labour mobility as the main reasons. The industry is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector and the sector that uses the highest proportion of foreign-born workers at 38%.