There's a lot at stake.
Ed Update: This post has been updated to reflect Britain's historical Brexit Vote to leave the European Union.
Voters around the United Kingdom cast their ballots on the divisive "Brexit" referendum yesterday, and have chosen to cut ties with the European Union by just a few percentage points. Many aspects of British politics and trade will be significantly impacted by a Brexit—a.k.a. British exit—but the industry with the most at stake could be Britain's food.
The historic British exit referendum makes the U.K. the first to leave the 28-nation EU since the alliance was formed 43 years ago. This decision has sent ripples through the world's economy. While Brexit supporters think independence is key to moving forward as a country, Remain voters feared the separation from the EU could have a negative impact on financial growth, jobs, international investments, and trade—including the 80-billion-Euro-a-year food industry.
The business of food employs approximately 400,000 people a year in the U.K. and is Brits' largest manufacturing sector, according to The Guardian. Of those workers, around 38 percent are foreign-born immigrants, a key point raised by supporters of the Brexit who would like to see much stricter immigration policies throughout their nation.
Since joining the EU, the common policies held for agriculture, trade, and movement of goods have been key to the U.K.'s food system. The Common Agriculture Policy itself swallows up 40 percent of the total EU budget. In turn, the other nations of the European Union have been integral trade partners for Britain, and have been the U.K.'s primary export market. Additionally, the British people depend on their fellow European states to provide a quarter of what they consume every year.
Because of these deep economic ties, many British leaders who opposed Brexit feared the trade reprecussions the food industry could face. Elizabeth Truss, the Secretary of State for environment, food, and rural affairs warned that a "leave" vote would be a risky "leap in the dark" that could endanger the livelihood and success of the nations' farmers and food distributors. And Truss is not alone; according to the Food and Drink Federation in the U.K., 71 percent of its members wanted to remain part of the Union.
However, many supporters to the left point to potentially destructive forthcoming EU policies—like a negotiation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which would lift restrictions on genetically modified organisms and lower animal welfare requirements—which could be detrimental to their nation's food chain. Former Green party chair Jenny Jones, who supported the Brexit says the EU "fosters the pointless carting of goods enormous distance."
However, others aren't so sure leaving the EU would create much of a positive change within the food industry. "You could create a good food and farming system in or out of the EU—it's a question of values and political will," says Kath Dalmeny, the leader of a food and farming campaign group. Now that the decision has been made, farmers, distributors, restaurateurs, and the like are sure to be waiting with bated breath for consequences that could drastically change the way they do business forever.