“What the UK is trying to do with Brexit, everybody says they are crazy but it will work. You have to adapt yourself to that,” said Greenyard executive chairman Hein Deprez.
The head of one of Europe’s largest food companies made his comments during a Brexit workshop that took place on the eve of the London Produce Show and Conference this week, addressing a packed audience eager to learn more about the risks and opportunities exiting the EU presents for the fresh produce trade.
“You have to do it in a completely different way, you have to be disruptive and to find solutions for this disruptive world,” Deprez said.
He emphasised it was entirely possible for Britain to come out of negotiations winning.
“Listen to what markets need and try to build the most ideal assortment. We have to adapt our markets to what the consumer will decide. They have already decided on Brexit, you can’t change that anymore,” he said.
“You need to bring full assortments and when you do that, you need to be present all over the world.”
Learning to change the mentality in England, he said, was key alongside “creating optimisation”, even though there are and will continue to be price pressures caused by a weaker pound.
“We are confronted with sterling going down and products are becoming a lot more expensive so how can we save on costs? How can we create optimisation?
“You need, for example as an import player in England, to have a full basket of products. We have to learn, in England, to change our mentality – excuse me that I say it like that this, but we have to work harder; we have to create productivity.
“And I can tell you that suppliers will not accept that in the future, they will not accept anymore that you will deduct costs under pressure of your retailers. So you have to adapt your productivity.”
Deprez added he was active in several companies in the UK across fresh, frozen and farming sectors.
“One third of what we are selling in the UK in fruit and vegetables is locally produced, one third comes from Europe and one third comes from overseas. I think that without any problem in the next five years, the UK can produce 50% and even more.
“Bananas will not be produced in the UK or oranges and the same for table grapes, but there are a lot of products that will be important; there is room to produce a lot of product in the UK.
“I have already worked with English farmers for years to grow a variety of vegetables and they say it’s too difficult, too much work. But English people, they are not on the farms working; there are Polish people, Portuguese people working for low salaries – I don’t understand why it’s not possible.
“You have to do that; English people have to start to farm better.”
Also on stage during the workshop titled “Accessing the UK market – now and after Brexit”, was agricultural counsellor from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Tim Heddema.
He likened the UK leaving the EU as the Netherlands losing a “sibling” or “best friend”, and explained how Britain faced the challenge of renegotiating with no less than 160 countries, including 53 EU trade agreements offering preferential access.
“Our shared history is a long one, formally as rival seafaring nations and previous incarnations of a global Britain and a global Holland, we’ve gone from fire to friendship,” Heddema told delegates.
“We are losing the fellow member state that in general has shown itself to be the most like-minded of all of them.
“Brexit has been analysed to death, I sometimes say. There’s no denying it’s having a huge impact on all of us already, before it is actually happening. I’m sure Brexit would win the word of the year trophy were it not for the surprise entry of “covfefe”, he said lightheartedly.
However, he said experts predicted it would take the UK decades to get back its preferential access, citing the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) as an example that took nine years.
“This all sounds like a problem for the UK alone but naturally the EU may find itself in a similar situation being the other splinter of the fractured partnership.
“Splitting the EU free trade agreements into EU and UK parts would undoubtedly spark protests from partner countries and lead to endless discussions on the changed circumstances,” he said.
Heddema said at first it was hard to see any opportunities from the situation.
“For starters, the burden of negotiations can be physically immense and time consuming,” he said.
“Still, both the European Commission or the EU as a whole, and the UK Government will probably want to make a big success out of getting additional market access around the world to make up for Brexit.
“With the right product scope there is a lot to gain for strong exporting industries.”
Adding that the race for China, India and other Asian states was “definitely on”, Heddema said getting the right market access was a shared effort between industry, government and research institutions.
“Exporting and investment opportunities will always be there for those who try hard and have the required knowledge, whether you are part of the EU, the UK or anywhere else.
“Our ties are too strong to be severed by a new trade agreement with higher trade barriers. If anything, it will reward the most innovative entrepreneurs in high production regions like the EU and UK generally are.
“But first the new arrangements will have to be concluded and right now it’s not even certain when talks on the future relationship will start.”