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Back To Beans? A Whiff Of Britain's Post-Brexit Food Menu

A messy withdrawal from the EU could cost the U.K. its current trade routes and threaten supplies of brie and parmesan, avocados and tomatoes...and even tea!

Traditional British baked beans
Traditional British baked beans
Megan Durisin, Aine Quinn and Rob Dawson

LONDON — No more avocado toast or banana smoothies. And forget about shaving fresh parmesan on your pasta. Instead, get used to milk at every meal, bread for days, lamb chops, and peas. Lots and lots of peas.

Home-grown meals more akin to an industrial-age diet are what Britons could be eating if the U.K. leaves the European Union without a deal that sets up basic trading relations with other countries. The U.K. relies heavily on imports and has been such a hotbed of agricultural trade for centuries that it's easy to forget what the British palate would look like in a world where food trade grinds to a halt.

It's hard to predict what could happen at this stage. While it's highly unlikely that food imports would completely cease if the U.K. eventually crashes out of the bloc without a deal, grocery stores and farmers are preparing for the worst. If that were to happen, there'd at least be plenty of meat and potatoes, but forget "five-a-day" fruit and vegetables.

A caricatural figure of British PM Theresa May in Germany — Photo: Ina Fassbender/DPA/Zuma

"We'll have food, but the supply chains and logistics would need to handle a major change," said Sue Pritchard, director at the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission at the Royal Society of Arts. "Maybe we'll need to revive the British tradition of a good meat and three veg roast!"

The nation produces about 60% of its own food, so a lot of popular products would, hypothetically, be unavailable. We took a look at what supermarket shelves would look like in a world without trade.

A gallon a week

Brits would be swimming in milk. U.K. cows produce enough for about a gallon per person each week, providing plenty for breakfast cereal or dessert trifles. Egg supplies are also largely domestic.

But other familiar products could disappear, such as Irish butter or cheddar. Farmers in Northern Ireland wouldn't be able to send milk across the border for processing, and cheese fans should bid farewell to French brie and Italian Parmesan.

Bye bye bananas

There'd be fewer greens, and what remains will be more vulnerable to seasonal harvests. Fresh produce would be among the most affected, as the U.K. imports most of its fruit and about half its vegetables. We'd each get about four pounds of strawberries and half a pound of raspberries a year from British farms, with nary a banana. Avocado toast is off the menu, too.

The country produces plenty of peas (its best-selling veggie), and carrots and beets are available most months. Broccoli would be on the shelves for just half the year. Save the tomatoes for special occasions: U.K. farmers produce only a fifth of the tomatoes sold in the country throughout the year, and up to a half in the summer, according to the British Tomato Grower's Association.

More mutton

It's lamb chops aplenty in Britain, one of the largest exporters of the meat. The country also produces about 50 pounds of chicken and 30 pounds each of beef and pork annually per person, though that includes some less-appetizing cuts currently sold abroad.

If overseas trade were to stop, there could be a shortage of popular legs and loins but extra livers on sale. Livestock would also see their diets change as imported corn and soybeans disappear from feed mixes.

There should not be a shortage of fish and chips — Photo: Tristan Ferne

Bread for days

There shouldn't be much of a shortage of bread because enough wheat is grown for the bulk of U.K. flour production. The grain has been grown in the country for thousands of years and ranks as the largest arable crop by area.

It's not all good news for carb lovers though. Products with firmer dough, such as pizza crusts, use high-protein wheat varieties that typically thrive in other climates. So consumers may have to swap a slice for an extra sandwich to get their fix of gluten.

A rare catch

Lobster and chips? The cod that's battered here often comes from Norway and Iceland — 90% of it was imported in 2015 — while British fishermen sell the bulk of their fresh shellfish to the continent. That could mean an abundance of crab, lobster and prawns for U.K. consumers.

And if you want a side of chips, you're in luck. Britain's penchant for potatoes would largely be secure because the country produces about three-quarters of its own supply, though imports some processed products.

Caffeine crisis?

Pile-ups at ports of entry could also hamper supplies from non-EU nations, so you may need to find an alternative to the afternoon cuppa. Britain's tea habit has always been fed by imports, originally fueled by shipments from the East India Company that started centuries ago.

Unsurprisingly, grinds for our morning coffee aren't homegrown either, and many wine glasses would sit unused without overseas supply. The U.K. imported 480 million bottles of wine from the EU in 2017, according to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association industry group.

It's not all bad news — local pubs would still be able to serve up a stiff drink. About 20 million casks of whisky are currently maturing in Scotland, and the country could always tap its barley fields to brew beer.

— With assistance by Patricia Suzara

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