Rather than prompting Belgium to focus its efforts on other markets, Brexit has seen the country actively target export growth in Britain. Fred Searle crosses the Channel to find out how and why
Let’s be honest, Brexit has been a big headache for EU exporters of fresh produce to the UK. Yes, EU imports have so far been allowed to cross the border without sanitary or phytosanitary checks – on all but the highest-risk products. But the London School of Economics estimates that the implementation of the new trade relationship led to a sudden and persistent 25 per cent fall in UK imports from the EU, relative to the rest of the world.
The main reasons for this were the added friction and cost now involved in exporting goods from the EU to Britain. And the recent shortages at UK supermarkets proved that when supply is short there are other easier and more lucrative markets for EU exporters within the bloc.
These inconvenient truths do not rule out the possibility of exceptions or silver linings, of course. And one country looking to make the best of a tricky situation is Belgium, which is already an important supplier of pears, tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, apples, and aubergines to the UK – mainly to the wholesale and foodservice sectors.
Britain is Belgium’s fourth-biggest export market for fresh fruit and veg, both in value and volume. Pears are by far the biggest export to the UK, but second-placed tomatoes have enjoyed the most impressive growth, with volumes doubling to almost 22,000 tonnes in the past decade, according to Eurostat data.
Exports on the up
Since Britain’s EU departure, exporting from Europe to the UK has become a slower and more complicated process. But Belgian exporters are trying to use this universal reality to their advantage. Belgium’s close proximity and relatively short lead times – compared to most other European production countries – have made it an attractive proposition for UK importers.
Discounting a big drop in the export figures for Belgian strawberries – mainly due to a change in the way trade is measured following Britain’s departure from the EU customs union – export volumes are on the rise. And EU-funded campaigns are in full swing to promote Belgian produce in Britain, help Belgian exporters manage post-Brexit trade requirements, and motivate producers to at least explore the possibility of exporting to the UK.
These initiatives – run by VLAM, Flanders’ Agricultural Marketing Board – have helped Belgian exporters get to grips with the complexities of Brexit, as well as flying the flag for Belgian produce in Britain. This comes at a time when importers and wholesalers are keen to shore up imports and minimise complexity within an uncertain landscape of logistical disruption, delays, high inflation, and climate change.
“The first year after Brexit was very challenging, but afterwards, because most Belgian fresh produce companies are very lean, they adapted to it,” says VLAM’s Brexit consultant Ward Verberck.
“Until April last year we still didn’t know where we were going, but then the UK government lifted the uncertainty by saying they would postpone phytosanitary checks (for the fourth time) until the end of 2023. We still don’t know how things will look after that, but seeing what has happened in Morocco, I think they will be reluctant to add complexity to imports of fresh foods.”
Verberck notes that there is still confusion among some Belgian companies about what Brexit means for them in practice, and every time the UK government makes a new announcement and regulations change, he is inundated with calls from exporters.
Nevertheless, Brexit has failed to make a dent in Belgium’s exports to the UK. In fact, according to Eurostat figures, fresh vegetable exports rose from €26.6m in 2019 (before the UK exited the single market and customs union on 31 January 2020) to €44.3m in 2022.
In fresh vegetables, exports have fallen from €70.2m to €51.5m, but this was driven by a sharp decline in strawberry exports, which fell from €32m to €8.1m. Discounting strawberries, the value of fresh fruit exports also increased. And as noted, the reduction in total strawberry volumes was mainly caused by a change in the way that the export data is collected and measured, not by Brexit itself.
Garden of England
Marc Evrard is the commercial director of BFV, Belgium’s largest fruit growers cooperative and its largest fruit exporter. Products include pears, apples, strawberries, and cherries. He is confident that regionality gives the country a strategic advantage post-Brexit and believes that one day Belgium could be regarded as the second Garden of England, after Kent.
“It’s just a short hop from Belgium to the UK, so we are natural partners,” he says. “We don’t have to be nationalistic about where we get our produce from, but regionality certainly comes in handy.”
Evrard adds that in topfruit, BFV’s main category, the gap between the cost of production in northern and southern Europe has closed in the last two years as inflation has pushed up prices internationally. “In the past, Mediterranean countries had an advantage over regions in northern Europe for producing fresh produce,” he says, “but in the last year or so, costs per hectare have grown to a similar level. This has levelled the playing field somewhat and made Belgium more competitive.”
Belgium has the added advantage of producing higher yields than in some areas of southern Europe, according to Evrard. He claims that an average Belgian pear producer can grow around 35 tonnes per hectare, with the most productive growers achieving yields of 60-70 tonnes per hectare.
Belgium’s neighbour, the Netherlands, also boasts high productivity and efficiency, and is a much larger and more established supplier of fresh produce to the UK. But according to Verberck there is an important distinction between the two countries’ approach to fruit and vegetable supply. Generally speaking, Belgium is made up of medium-sized producers that are smaller than across the border. Since it has stuck to selling most of its fruit and vegetables through cooperatives at auction, this has allowed the growers to focus on production rather than trading.
“Belgian greenhouse producers are modern, top-of-the-crop producers, with a strong focus on quality, sustainability and craftmanship. The difference with the Netherlands is that the Dutch have a greater focus on volume. The trick for Belgian suppliers is to convince or to find customers who appreciate quality.”
That said, it’s a testing time, and the challenges facing producers in Belgium are perhaps greater than ever before. They are far from alone, but Belgium’s growers are facing a perfect storm of energy price rises, higher production costs, weather volatility, pesticide bans, and ever-stricter environmental requirements from retailers, especially in open-field crops.
In the tomato sector, growers have the added worry of ToBRFV, a devastating tomato virus that has hit some Belgian growers. And another factor that producers must consider is land, which is limited and expensive in a small country like Belgium.
As elsewhere in Europe, tighter margins have driven down the number of fruit and vegetable producers, with REO Veiling’s membership falling from around 2,000 to 800 active growers since 2007, according to commercial director Dominiek Keersebilck. That said, total production in Belgium’s co-ops has increased thanks to consolidation in the sector, but BelOrta’s sales supervisor Guy Jennes is concerned.
“Across Europe, producers are not respected enough, and we are not defending agriculture enough,” he says. “We are losing access to fertilisers and pesticides, and certain growers are asking us how they are supposed to produce at a fair price and a good quality. We are afraid that within 10 years we simply won’t be able to manage anymore. The danger is that the children of our producers are simply saying: ‘I’m not interested in agriculture – it’s too difficult and uncertain’.”
In the shorter term, this season could prove challenging since many glasshouse growers in Belgium decided to plant later this year due to energy price rises. This meant that at the end of May the Belgian tomato harvest was only just starting to pick up – almost three months later than in a normal year.
The delay in production means more Belgian growers are occupying the same production window this year, which could lead to oversupply in tomatoes and other glasshouse veg in the summer months, thereby lowering prices.
Despite all these challenges, there are reasons for optimism on the international stage, and in strawberries the Hoogstraten cooperative says some of its growers have used Brexit to their advantage. “Some of our members really saw Brexit as an opportunity and were specialised in making up the right documents and working with the right logistics partners,” says Hoogstraten’s Marcel Biemans.
One thing that sets the co-op apart from the other others in Belgium is its stronger focus on marketing, both B2B and B2C. Indeed, its brand has become synonymous with high-quality strawberries – as well as tomatoes and peppers. In a bid to add greater transparency to its supply chain, the cooperative has added QR codes to the side of its recyclable cardboard strawberry punnets. The code links the consumer with the individual grower, displaying a photo and information on their business, as well as allowing shoppers to leave comments.