Opinion: Impact of Brexit on dairy nearly 3 years on

Explore the impact of Brexit on the dairy industry nearly 3 years on

07 Jun 2023

6 min

#Blog #Global #All Categories #Sustainability #COVID-19

Disclaimer: The following article is an opinion piece. This article represents the personal views and perspectives of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Fonterra. Readers are encouraged to verify any claim or statement made below for themselves and Fonterra is not responsible for any decisions taken in reliance on the same.

Most people in Britain would remember Christmas Eve in 2020 vividly. Not only for the usual last-minute gift-wrapping chaos, but more for the trade chaos that they were narrowly avoiding as the EU and the UK, with a looming deadline of 31 December that year, agreed that as the UK left the EU permanently on account of its Brexit decision, the two partners would continue to trade without tariffs (or duties) on products traded between them.

At the end of this year, 2023, it will be almost three years since the Brexit agreement was inked. What has the effect been of Brexit on trade (and in particular dairy trade) between the UK (the world’s second-largest dairy net importer) and the EU (the world’s largest dairy exporter)? Has it been plain sailing since then?

In the first weeks and months following the Brexit agreement, a number of issues arose and arose quickly.

Products were not flowing as easily as had been promisedwith 1 in 10 trucks at the UK/EU border apparently being turned back for lack of correct paperwork.1

UK dairy operators scrambled to set up European trading entities and adjust to a ‘new normal’, where they were no longer on an even playing field with continental competitors. Some had fears of food shortages and many small businesses trading in perishable goods reportedly suffered huge losses (with some swallowed up by larger companies better equipped to deal with rising costs or even forced out of business).

The UK’s chief negotiator, Michael Gove, acknowledged these problems, but compared them to a plane’s turbulence during take-off, admitting: ‘We’re not at the gin and tonic and peanuts stage yet’.2

So now almost 3 years in, has the seatbelt sign been switched off yet?

The paperwork and trucking congestion now largely appear to have been ironed out– although the UK has recently announced its own border operating model (Target Operating Model or TOM) for which details as at May 2023 are rather light and may cause some initial bedding-in issues again. One example would be the categorising of ‘risk’ for animal products, where certain EU cheeses would be deemed at higher risk than others and therefore require different paperwork at the border.

The Northern Ireland situation has been an ongoing dilemma for the UK and the EU –with disagreement between them on how to manage the flow of goods between the EU and Northern Ireland without effectively imposing a border and thereby complicating the all-important Good Friday Agreement. We now have the Windsor Framework in place which was agreed earlier this year as a way forward, but again this still needs to be completely ironed out.

Looking at the trade numbers paints a picture too. There are, of course, other significant factors in play here as well that have had their own effects on trade over this time (including COVID-19, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and inflationary pressures, to name a few). 

Nevertheless, we do see the initial drop in volumes after Brexit now coming back to levels that more closely resemble historic trade figures in dairy between the EU and the UK (refer to Figure 1).


Figure 1:

Chart for Perspective June

The UK has a significant domestic dairy industry, with 1,154 million kilograms of milk solids (kg MS) collected in 2022 (compared with New Zealand’s 1,845 million kg MS).3

Despite this local milk pool, dairy’s enduring popularity with consumers in the British Isles means the UK needs to supplement their production each year, accounting for 4% of global imports in 2022 (on par with Japan, The Philippines and the EU27).4

It is not all negative though. Putting aside how disruptive trade would have become had no agreement been reached that Christmas Eve in 2020, the UK has been busy seeking its own trade agreements – notably those with New Zealand and Australia. This creates a great opportunity both for the UK and those partner countries to build new supply partnerships in both markets, including opening smoother trade channels for products of real value to UK consumers (offering an increased choice of imported goods that have world-leading sustainability credentials, and the highest food safety and quality) – a real positive for the UK dairy market overall to have an alternative to imports from the EU.

We are seeing encouraging signs that lower carbon, grass-fed dairy ingredients, are an ever more valuable calling card – further enhancing the quality of access these new trade deals provide.

In summary, Brexit continues to be a political football in the UK, with many claiming both its success and failure to gain some political point scoring (especially at present as the UK’s elections are approaching). Despite trade numbers beginning to return to historical norms, compliance with border controls, certifications, and the ongoing level of uncertainty around implementation will likely continue to be an added cost and resource for businesses on both sides of the channel.

Nevertheless, it has opened the door for the UK to diversify its dairy trade with other partners, like New Zealand, which in our view creates some great opportunities to supplement nutritious, innovative, and sustainable dairy ingredients into this exciting market.


Mark Casey

GM of Trade Strategy & Stakeholder Affairs - Fonterra

Mark Casey is Fonterra’s General Manager of Trade Strategy and Stakeholder Affairs for the regions of Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA). In this role Mark works alongside Fonterra’s businesses in those markets to advise on, protect and enhance market access and to lead the Co-operative’s engagement and relationships with key stakeholders.

A significant part of Mark’s role is to monitor, review and communicate to the business, key insights within the dairy sector, including various outlooks and developing policies in trade, food systems, dairy industry structures, and sustainability.

These are a few crucial drivers for the future strategy and ambitions for maximising the value of Fonterra Co-operative’s farmers’ milk, and as Fonterra continues to be a global leader in sustainability and dairy innovation. Originally from Auckland, Mark now lives with his family in Amsterdam.

Alex Hume

Business Development Manager for the UK - Fonterra

Alex Hume is Fonterra’s Business Development Manager for the United Kingdom. In market since 2022, Alex has been focused on rebuilding relationships with historic partners and forging new connections with the local dairy industry. The February 2022 signing of the NZ-UK Free Trade Agreement has given the Co-operative a platform to re-engage with local stakeholders.

With a background in scaling growth for New Zealand export businesses, and a long-term interest in sustainable farming, Alex is excited to be exploring UK market opportunities on behalf of Fonterra’s 9,000 farmer shareholders.

Beginning his career farming in New Zealand’s North Island, Alex is now based in London.

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  • 3. UK milk collection figures from AHDB; kg MS converted from 14.90 billion litres based on average fat composition of 4.2% and average protein of 3.3% for 2022.
  • 4. Compiled from IHS Markit Global Trade Atlas data.

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