The UK exported more food and drink to countries outside the EU than to the bloc in the first three months after Brexit, a first for the sector.
However, that is because exports to the EU dropped by nearly half – 47 per cent – compared to the first quarter of 2020.
Exports to non-EU countries grew just 0.3 per cent, industry body the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said.
The sector is currently battling the twin effects of the UK’s departure from the trading bloc and the coronavirus pandemic, which has created labour shortages and snarled up supply chains due to customs problems.
Overall, exports brought in £3.7bn in the first quarter, down from £5.1bn last year.
Exports to the Republic of Ireland, traditionally the sector’s biggest export market, were down 71 per cent at just £281m, compared to £961m last year, in a sign of the impact that the new customs border in the Irish Sea is having.
Portugal and Spain saw the next biggest falls in exports, dropping 72 per cent and 63 per cent respectively.
Dairy products have been most badly impacted. Exports of milk and cream to the EU were down by more than 90 per cent, and exports of cheese down by two thirds since last year, the FDF said.
“The loss of £2bn of exports to the EU is a disaster for our industry, and is a very clear indication of the scale of losses that UK manufacturers face in the longer-term due to new trade barriers with the EU,” said the federation’s head of international trade Dominic Goudie.
The figures come after UK meat producers revealed that they were facing labour shortages as a result of Brexit and the pandemic, which risked the creation of a “two-tier” food system in Britain.