More than a quarter of the food manufacturing workforce (26.9%) are from the EU, it warned. The figure compared with 6.1% of the workforce across the UK economy.
That raised the fear food and drink manufacturing could be plunged into crisis if EU workers lose the right to remain in the UK.
The report’s co-authors, Professor Tim Lang and Dr Victoria Schoen, also highlighted the UK’s reliance on food imports.
Nearly 40% of the UK’s total food supply of fruit and vegetables was supplied from the EU, and nearly 55% of its pigmeat supply. Food imports were likely to become more expensive if the country decided to leave.
‘There’ll need to be a ‘dig for victory’
Lang, director of the Centre for Food Policy at City University London, and chair of the FRC, said: “If the people vote for Brexit, there’ll need to be a ‘dig for victory’ on an unprecedented scale. And this won’t be using the EU labour that currently grows, picks and processes so much British food.”
The report argued that the food industry should be at the heart of the Brexit debate, because of the huge impact leaving would have on the sector and the UK’s food security.
The authors also warned that the country must “wake up to the enormity of unravelling 43 years of co-negotiated food legislation”.
Lang said: “The referendum will be a defining moment in UK food policy, with hugely important implications for both consumers and businesses.
“Our report outlines the real impact the EU has on UK food. Brits need to stop joking about wine lakes, bent bananas and myths from the EU past, which have been sorted, and get real about security of food supply today and tomorrow.”
‘Frustrations of EU food membership’
He added: “Our paper acknowledges the, at times, frustrations of EU food membership but asks the public: which is better – to use British muscle to keep working on shifting the food system in a more sustainable direction, or to waste years negotiating an isolationist position?”
- 26.9% of UK’s food factory workforce is from EU
- Nearly 40% of UK fruit and vegetables supplied from EU
- UK is about 60% food self-sufficient
Schoen, research fellow for the FRC, said: “Attention should remain on what matters most: how to shift a high carbon, wasteful and unhealthy food system at both EU and UK levels in a more sustainable direction. Brexit would not alter that challenge.”
She conceded that there were problems with the EU, and said there was criticism of its food policies in the paper, and that it needed to move more quickly and more smartly.
But she added: “We argue that, with the level of food that we import from the EU – particularly fruit and vegetables – it deserves a prominent place in the national debate about the implications of Brexit.
“The UK currently has only 164,000 hectares in horticulture, out of 4.7M hectares available for crops.”
Read the report here.
Meanwhile, in a separate development, House of Commons leader and Cabinet member Chris Grayling hit back at Prime Minister David Cameron’s claim that leaving the EU would cost UK jobs.
“That is simply not true. It is about creating the opportunity for more jobs,” he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
“European Union regulations cost jobs in this country,” he said. “They increase costs for business. They make it less desirable to employ people in the UK.”