Here is a summary of a recent report produced by the Centre for Food Policy, written by some leading food policy academics.
It argues that not enough attention is being paid to food during negotiations, that a careless Brexit could seriously threaten food security in Britain, and that there is a desperate need to develop a new UK food system policy which spans agriculture to consumption, regardless of Brexit. It also identifies the risks involved with reforming UK food safety regulations whilst attempting to negotiate trade deals with the EU. These are all major issues, particularly when you consider the huge impact food has on the economy and public welfare.
Does the UK government realise that food is important?
A recent white paper released by the government acknowledged that the agri-food sector is important, however, only farming and manufacturing has been considered for future relationships with the EU; the FRC report argues that retail and food service should also be a major consideration.
Another contentious issue is migrant workers; the government have been reticent on the subject thus far, despite the UK being reliant on migrants throughout the food system; some estimates suggest that 40% of UK food manufacturing is carried out by EU migrant labour. Similarly, in food service, 12.3-23.7% of workers are non-UK EU Nationals; in London, this figure is much higher (25.7-38%).
If you’re interested in reading about why more British workers aren’t interested in picking fruit, see this article by my colleague (Dr. Caroline Nye) at the University of Exeter.
Food service is the largest source of employment in the UK food chain and delivers much more gross value added (29%) than other sectors such as agriculture (7%) and retail (27%).
How fragile IS UK food security?
The UK sources 30% of its food from the EU as well as a further 11% through EU negotiated deals with other countries. Around 10,000 containers of food arrive in the UK from the EU every day; that’s around 50,000 tonnes of food each year. In a no-Brexit deal, it is estimated that average tariffs on imports will be 22%, with certain items such as cheese likely to reach much higher figures (estimated 46% for cheese; this will make it extremely expensive!).
It will be disastrous if the government gets this wrong. However, they clearly understand this (at least to an extent!) as they plan to suspend food regulations if a no-deal Brexit happens to keep food coming in.
It is dangerous that political attention is almost entirely surrounding Brexit at the moment, and there is a resulting risk that a sustainable UK food system is not being planned effectively.
“The British public expect supermarket shelves to be filled with a wide range of reliable, fresh and affordable foods. ‘Cheap’ food is not actually cheap. There are large externalised costs from today’s highly processed, industrial food system due to its adverse effects on public health and the environment. Compared to the 1960s, spending on food by the British public, in terms of the share of disposable income devoted to food, has halved from ~20% to ~10%, although people on low incomes spend proportionately more of their money on food, while the rich spend a far lower share.
Despite those adverse externalities and rampant inequalities, the food system has often enabled people to spend more on non-food items, such as cars, housing, IT and holidays. The vast majority of people in this country take for granted the performance of the complex, logistically sophisticated, evolving and unstable system on which our food supply and food markets depend. We may see the large lorries on our roads, but we don’t see the satellites and the computers that are integral to the logistics revolution. The cash tills that tally the consumer’s purchases at the checkout also directly communicate with the supply chain to order replacements. Much of the stock and storage is in trucks on the motorways and autoroutes”.
‘Food security doesn’t simply mean ‘tonnage’ on the shelves’. Different foods contain different nutrients and qualities, and the damage being caused by poor diets must be reversed.
Advertising doesn’t help: food companies currently spend 27x more on advertising than the UK government spends on promoting healthy eating. In my opinion, unhealthy food advertising should be banned or at least restricted to after a watershed; the NHS spend £16 BILLION each year treating the results of over-consumption. That’s more than is allocated to the entire police force.
Our food system is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, social injustice, and diet-related ill health. Even without Brexit, most research indicates that there will be serious pressure on resources, land, water and people by 2050. Regardless of Brexit, the current food system must change.
In order to minimise climate change contributions, meat consumption must be reduced and social injustices reduced.
Low-income consumers have already been adversely affected by the pound drop after the EU referendum; food banks have become normal instead of being used solely for short-term crises
Food safety in the UK
The Food Standards Agency are currently undertaking a reform; this will significantly alter how food safety is carried out in the UK. However, this has received very little public attention even though the resulting changes will be fundamental. The FRC report being discussed here argue that the FSA need to be clearer and provide evidence to support any proposals.
What does the report recommend the government do?
- Have a clear focus on the possible negative effects of Brexit on UK food security whilst seeking trade deals
- Ensure that high food standards remain central to future trade deals
- Show some clarity on migration policy and recognise the huge contributions of non-UK workers make to UK food supply and services
- Avoid a ‘hard’ food Brexit at all costs
- Create a new sustainable food security strategy which recognises the complexities of the UK food system
- Have a sustainable food bill to provide secure and sustainable food which integrates public health, consumer protection, animal welfare and environmental sustainability
- Guarantee publicly that the Food Standards Agency will remain within the Department of Health
- Identify opportunities for improving the UK’s domestic sources of food, within the UK’s climatic and seasonal constraints.
- Improve devolved food governance in England so that it works better alongside the policies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland
What does the report recommend that WE do?
- Encourage MPs to ensure that there will be no disruption to food supplies from the EU after Brexit
- Encourage the agricultural and food sector to improve the pay and conditions of employees and provide more training and development to attract more people to the industry
- Contribute to committees which work to achieve sustainable food security
- Research the conditions under which safe and healthy diets can be affordable for everyone
Want to read more?
You can read the full report by Professor Tim Lang, Professor Erik Millstone, Tony Lewis and Professor Terry Marsden here.