When shipping containers arrive in UK ports, they’re usually full to the brim with fresh produce. But when they leave, they are often totally empty.
Nothing illustrates our trade deficit better than this fact. We buy so much more from overseas than we sell that on average only half of a ship’s containers will be full when it sails away from the UK. This means our biggest export by volume is not whisky, medication or machinery, but fresh air.
The mechanics and complexity of British global trade has been brought into the public consciousness like never before through the continuing debate over Brexit, educating us about tariff barriers and WTO rules.
Now a BBC documentary series, What Britain Buys and Sells in a Day, produced in partnership with the Open University, seeks to show the scale of our imports and exports by examining what leaves and arrives on our shores in a 24-hour period. Many of the facts are startling.
We import most of the fish we eat (because our favourite, cod, is not found in large enough numbers in our own waters). But we export most of the fish we catch (because we turn our noses up at the vast of quantities of langoustine caught in British waters – a delicacy that very much floats the boat of diners in Spain and Italy).
We have increasingly cosmopolitan tastes when it comes to other types of food, however, This, combined with advances in haulage technology, means that on a daily basis we bring in sweetcorn from Senegal, mushrooms from Korea and asparagus from Mexico.
Sweet potatoes from the US take 10 days to get to us. Pineapples from Costa Rica take 20 days and kiwis from Chile take up to four weeks.
At the same time, we export English sparkling wine to the US, apples to the Middle East, potatoes to Ireland and BMWs to Germany.
We are not the only ones with transforming appetites through the globalised food trade. Many restaurant-goers in the UK have been priced out of enjoying British crab. That is largely because of the rocketing demand from China – whose imports have doubled in the past year.
That has caused prices of brown crab to double. Which is great news for British fishermen and terrible news for British diners with a soft spot for the seafood.
This shift would not have been possible without a surge in passenger flights between the UK and China (which itself is thanks to growing numbers of China’s new middle class tourists visiting the UK).
That is because large quantities of fresh fish – including many transported live – are flown in and out of Britain on passenger airlines, in boxes crammed up against your holiday suitcases.
More than a quarter of our fresh tuna comes in through Heathrow. And it was the rise of passenger aircraft transporting cargo in the 1990s that helped put fresh tuna steak on so many British menus.
The news was a “complete revelation” to Ed Balls, who presents the three episodes alongside Cherry Healey and Ade Adepitan.
The former shadow chancellor tells i: “There were so many things which surprised me. For example, Heathrow is our largest port in the UK. Actually more per value goes through Heathrow than through the sea ports.
“Another thing which I hadn’t realised was the sophistication of modern containers. There are 3 million containers on ships, full of cargo, going around the world at any point in time. You can load avocados in Chile and because the humidity and temperature and oxygen can be changed over the course of their three-week journey to the UK, by the time they arrive in London Gateway, where we filmed, they are perfectly ready to be sold on the supermarket shelf the following day.”
While most of the general public would likely struggle to explain the basics of British trade, it seems the politicians sometimes have difficulty, too.
In November last year, Dominic Raab, now foreign secretary, admitted: “I hadn’t quite understood the full extent of this, but if you look at the UK and if you look at how we trade in goods, we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing.”
Balls denies that he learnt anything while making the series that he could have done with knowing while working in the Treasury. “I think in broad-brush terms, as an economist, I knew these numbers. What the programme does is it brings them to life in a very clear way.”
Squeezing fresh food into the holds of passenger aircraft helps keep the price of plane tickets low, but comes with an environmental cost. If we turn to non-EU countries for food imports post-Brexit, our carbon footprint will go up, a parliamentary committee has heard.
Even without Brexit, our trading relationship with the world is dizzyingly intricate. With our tariffs currently set by the EU, “we’re probably talking about different tariff lines for over 8,000 products and they may vary depending on who we trade with,” Dr Michael Gasiorek, of the UK Trade Policy Observatory, tells i.
“That’s just on the import side, let alone the export side, where each country we export to sets its tariffs. And that’s just tariffs, let alone the regulations. When we leave the EU, it’s going to get even more complex.”
The image of Britain as a great trading nation is one many of us think is confined to the old days of empire. However, according to The Economist, “by historical standards, Britain is in a golden era of trade” today.
In 1700, our imports and exports equated to only 4 per cent of total economic output. By the late 19th century, at the height of empire, this rose to a third. In recent years, trade has accounted for 60 per cent of GDP.
No-one knows for sure what will happen post-Brexit. But for now at least, when it comes to British trade, we’ve never had it so good.
- ‘What Britain Buys and Sells in a Day’ is on Monday 30 September at 9pm on BBC Two