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As food prices skyrocket, here’s an under-appreciated Brexit benefit

Jason Reed
August 19, 2022

With inflation skyrocketing and severely impacting the price of food for millions of UK consumers, Jason Reed argues the UK must now use its post-Brexit freedoms to begin getting prices down, starting with products like cooking oil.

Food prices are going through the roof, with catastrophic consequences for millions. According to recent analysis, the prices of some food items have increased by as much as 80 per cent in the space of a single year. Essentials ranging from pasta to cakes to cucumbers are suddenly much less affordable than they were just a few months ago, leaving many families struggling to cover their shopping bills as we head into a winter where energy bills are set to rise by thousands.

Of course, much of the increase in food prices is down to sweeping global factors like inflation, supply chain issues and the war in Ukraine. However, we can make the situation better – or at least, stop it from getting worse than it needs to – by ensuring that regulators do not interfere unnecessarily, especially when it comes to the European Union.

Take, for instance, vegetable oils. Countless products, from food to cosmetics, rely on vegetable oils as an ingredient. Because those oils are so widely used, when they become more expensive, the burden on households struggling to pay their bills around the world only gets worse. It is no business of Brussels, then, to intervene in the vegetable oil market and make things worse. Unfortunately, that is exactly what the EU is doing.

Some vegetable oils – sunflower, rapeseed and olive especially – are preferred by European bureaucrats because they are produced in Europe. The EU is implementing a protectionist approach to safeguard the industries native to Europe, even when that means cheaper or better alternatives from elsewhere in the world are blocked off from European supermarkets. By cutting off paths for non-European vegetable oil producers, the EU is able to place local industries on a pedestal, at the expense of free trade and, crucially, restricting consumer access to cheaper products, even during a cost of living crisis.

Despite the harmful effects of allowing food prices to climb even faster by restricting access to cheaper vegetable oils, the EU presses ahead with its restrictive agenda because of the strength of the vegetable oil lobby. France, for instance, represents a very powerful voice in the EU. Its farmers are three per cent of the EU's population. France relies on its domestic rapeseed oil industry, so it does not want competitor products coming into Europe from abroad. Under pressure from vegetable oil lobbying, the EU quickly intervenes in the market to restrict the use of other oils.

The result of the EU's shameless protectionism is that other vegetable oils such as palm oil find it unnecessarily difficult to enter European markets. This is bonkers, because palm oil is much cheaper to produce than others which are produced in Europe. The only thing it has against it is that it is not produced in Europe, so Brussels is uninterested in allowing it to participate in the market.

This protectionism also undermines another of the EU's stated aims: protecting the environment. Palm oil is much cheaper for manufacturers to use as an ingredient because it takes less land to produce. Being more land-efficient also makes it much better for the environment. Palm oil supplies 40 per cent of the world's vegetable oil on just six per cent of the land used for that purpose – meaning that more palm oil means less deforestation. Yet, the EU attacks it, prioritising European-produced oils which are less land-efficient and therefore have a bigger impact on the natural world. Meanwhile, the EU's Anti-Deforestation Law mysteriously targets commodities which threaten its domestic industries.

Palm oil could represent a key Brexit benefit. If Britain is able to sidestep the EU's protectionism and source palm oil directly from countries like Malaysia, we can allow British consumers to benefit from the lower prices – and reduce deforestation a little in the process – no matter what Brussels does.

Jason Reed

Jason Reed is the UK Lead at Young Voices and a political commentator for a wide range of outlets.

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