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Brexit has turned me into a prepper

I’d never stockpiled anything in my life, until the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit loomed.

According to a survey of the grocery sector, one in 10 UK residents are stockpiling food in advance of Brexit.
Alan Powdrill/Getty Images
Jessica Furseth is a journalist writing about culture, well-being, places, and quirks. She lives in London, England.

I’ve never stockpiled anything before, because I live in the middle of London, an incredible city that has everything. There are no fault lines or threats of tsunami waves here. I’ve always been skeptical of doomsday preppers, as I’m pretty sure modern life will end with a (climate-induced) whimper and not with a bang, meaning those canned peaches will be long expired by then.

But against these odds, Brexit has turned me into a prepper. I feel ridiculous counting the tins of beans in my larder, but everything about Brexit is ridiculous. I keep expecting to wake up from this madness, but there’s no escape — just endless headlines declaring that “riots will hit the streets after Brexit and the UK will be unstable for years,” the queen will be evacuated, and we will run out of medicine and may never see a piece of fresh fruit again.

No one knows what will happen if Britain crashes out of the EU in 24 days; as of today, there is no plan. I laughed at the Y2K preppers, stockpiling canned goods and batteries in anticipation of computers failing to cope with the year 2000. But now I’m starting to understand: on March 29, at 11 am sharp, we step off the cliff.

While in the European Union, Britain benefits from more than 750 international treaties, meaning we can trade freely with not just the EU but also more than 40 other countries. It’s like canceling a gym membership: When you are no longer a member, you can no longer use the treadmill. With each passing day it’s more likely that there will be no deal, and the warnings have come thick and fast: we could run out of nurses, bike parts, insulin, fuel, cheese, toilet paper, and body bags. When the British civil service’s no-deal preparedness plan, Operation Yellowhammer, leaked in September, an MP described it as “preparing for Brexit in the same way [we’d] approach catastrophes.” Maybe Theresa May will work something out between now and the end of the month, but every day there is more useless, infuriating news.

Still, I can’t really bring myself to believe that Britain will plunge into the ravine like Wile E. Coyote — surely that won’t be allowed to happen? A lot of people certainly seem to think fears are overblown. So I was a bit sheepish when I admitted to my partner why I’d added all those extra bags of coffee to the supermarket cart and ordered that case of my favorite Italian wine. I also did a bumper shop of toiletries, over-the-counter drugs, the only face cream that my difficult skin tolerates, and the medication I need to ensure I don’t have endless UTIs. Reading the packaging only added to the uncertainty — some of the items are made in the UK, but chances are at least some of the ingredients are imported. If the imports pile up at the border, at least I will be caffeinated and moisturized.

This is some very bougie prepping, I am aware! But honestly, I don’t really, truly expect the supermarkets to be empty in case of a no-deal Brexit. I do anticipate import delays and shortages during a transition period, though, and probably price hikes in the longer term. Or, should I say, I really hope that will be the extent of it, because a no-deal Brexit comes with stark warnings about food security. The UK imports 30 percent of its food supply from the EU, and our “just in time” supply chains mean most goods are brought in as and when needed, meaning any complication at the border will be felt within days.

This is why my friend Matt, a fellow Londoner, is prepping for the worst-case scenario. Matt has filled his cupboards with tinned beans, rice and pasta, and tinned fruit for his kid. “Who’d have thought food security would become a major issue with Brexit,” he tells me, exasperated. He also bought a camping stove: “I’m not eating cold beans while I watch the rioting.”

It may sound extreme, but we both remember when London experienced days of riots in 2011, which started as a protest against police abuse of power: “Those [riots in 2011] weren’t even about food scarcity and job losses and electric blackouts. It took police days to contain that, and people weren’t looting for food,” says Matt, who’s also bought low-power LED lighting and a windup radio. “The worst place to be is the middle of a city: totally reliant on logistics from outside.”

While having the means to stockpile is a privilege, one in 10 Brits are already filling their larders in anticipation, according to a survey of the grocery sector, which found that an additional quarter are considering starting. When Quartz reviewed 3,000 posts on Mumsnet, the popular UK parenting forum, pantry staples were the most common items for stockpiling, followed by over-the-counter drugs and children’s clothes in a size up. Wine, spices, dried herbs, umami paste, and stock cubes also came up — you don’t want to have those lentils plain. Most heartbreaking of all are the reports of stockpiling medicines, including insulin, cancer medication, and other drugs needed not just to thrive but to survive.

When Mary Paulson-Ellis from Edinburgh tweeted a photo about her “No Deal Brexit stockpile,” it showed a spread of seeds: carrots, lettuce, potatoes, onions, and sunflowers. “It was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also true that some naive part of me believes I can dig my way out of disaster,” Paulson-Ellis tells me. She’s not stockpiling anything else, at least not yet. “That’s [mostly] because part of me rebels at the very idea. How could it come to this!” Paulson-Ellis admits she’s given thought to how to maximize her vegetable yield this year, but still, she’s making sure there will be something pretty to look at if the worst happens: “I have a sense that perhaps, the most important part of my stockpile will be the sunflower seeds.”

As I picked up some extra rice, lentils, tinned tomatoes, and long-life almond milk this weekend, I figured that it will be a nice donation to a food bank if I am proven wrong. I desperately want to be wrong. But prepping is a very human response to threat; neuroscientist Shmuel Lissek told ‘Scientific American’ that the idea of impending doom triggers an ancient bias in us. “The initial response to any hint of alarm is fear,” he said. “This is the architecture with which we’re built.”

If Brexit ends up being as bad as the starkest warnings indicate, a cupboard full of beans won’t get us very far, so we might as well stockpile a nice Italian red. I alternate between feeling livid and heartbroken about what’s coming, but there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. So I’m buying coffee beans and wine instead — that’s one thing I can control. If it all goes wrong, a happy sunflower and a glass of Amarone might be just as important as the beans in order to keep calm and carry on.

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