James Withers, SF&D chief executive, was speaking on a live panel discussion with the EU+ME campaign group when he said Brexit pressures had put UK producers at a “staggering disadvantage”.
He also warned that the “anti-immigration rhetoric” which has surrounded Brexit is pushing the UK and Scotland towards a “serious crisis”.
Withers hit out at the shortages across the UK, saying they had arisen as a result of the Tory government’s “fundamental lack of understanding of supply chains”.
“We’re all starting to learn about supply chains, but we’re going to learn about it in a really difficult way because the range of things we expected to buy easily for the last however many decades is about to go,” he said.
Withers went on to say that the EU’s third party trading arrangements, which the UK now operates under, were “never meant” for a nation like Scotland – which exports perishable food that needs to cross borders rapidly.
Instead, he said, these third party rules were for products with long shelf lives that could be “shoved” into freezers and kept there for weeks.
The SF&D chief said: “It’s amazing … a farmer wants to remove a ditch in a field they have to do an impact assessment. We had the biggest trading change in a lifetime with the biggest market we’ve ever had, and no impact assessment, nothing was done.”
He went on: “This take back control thing has been an absolute myth because when it comes to our borders there’s no control at all. We’re waving in everything from the EU without a single check, and yet if you want to sell anything from here in the other direction you face a wall.”
Withers, who heads up SF&D having previously been the CEO of the National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS), said the issues were not solely down to increased bureaucracy, but also due to the impact of a Brexit which has taken a “purist form of ‘immigration is bad’”.
He told of a business in the Highlands, one of around 460 that SF&D represents, which employs 1500 people – but is 200 workers short.
Withers said the firm had tried bussing people in from Aberdeen or Inverness, working with housing associations, homeless people, parole officers, and even the Afghan resettlement scheme to try and find staff. But, he said, “the people are not there”.
“To have that reality on the ground versus this anti-immigration rhetoric is massively dangerous and that’s why I think we’re heading for a serious crisis,” he added.
“There are solutions sat on our desk now … but it’s caught in this dogmatic ‘no we’re not going to do that as we don’t want to be aligned with Europe on anything’.”
Withers said he was concerned that the kind of business failures seen in the UK energy market, where nine suppliers collapsed in September alone, “could start getting replicated in parts of the food and drink supply chain”.
“When you lose that infrastructure, it’s not a tap you can turn back on,” he cautioned.
Commenting, EU+ME spokesperson Alistair MacColl, who hosted the panel discussion on Thursday evening, said: “The latest panel discussion … highlighted the damaging effects of Brexit across a wide range of areas particularly in acute labour shortages, supply chain disruption, and new and substantial barriers to trade and export.
“The panel were unanimous is asking UK Government, politicians and policy makers to listen to the voices representing crucially important sectors – and act now and make sure freedom of movement is reinstated immediately.”
You can watch the full panel discussion here.