Brexit – Food Sustainability – Impact on the United Kingdom – U.K

Brexit – Food Sustainability

Brexit – Food Sustainability

Brexit - Food Sustainability

In July 2016 the UK voted to leave the EU. The decision will have significant ramifications for many areas of life in the country, some of which are only now starting to become apparent. Many of these challenges will appear abstract to the average UK citizen. However, one of the changes that could have very strong repercussions for the lives of ordinary people is the impact on how the country eats and how it produces its food.

Membership of the EU has seen the introduction of lots of laws related to the environment that have impacted on how food is produced. These have been beneficial for public health in the UK, including in relation to air pollution, water quality and toxic chemicals. Membership of the bloc has had an important impact on the UK’s agricultural sector, not least the subsidies of £2.5bn-3bn per year received by British farmers. Moreover, initiatives such as the common agricultural policy (CAP) have had a tangible benefit by supplementing over 50% of UK farmers’ incomes.

By leaving the EU, the UK is dissociating itself from the world leader on food sustainability. According to the Food Sustainability Index (FSI), developed in 2016 by The Economist Intelligence Unit with the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, EU member states performed better than most or all other countries surveyed. Countries were assessed across three metrics: sustainable agriculture, nutritional challenges, and food loss and waste. The four EU member states included in the study—France, Germany, the UK and Italy—all came in the top six overall, with France in first place. The UK came fifth overall, behind France, Japan, Canada and Germany, but ahead of other high-income countries, including South Korea, Australia and the US.

UK still has room to improve

Although the UK scored well in the FSI, there are many areas of food sustainability where it can clearly improve. According to the white paper accompanying the FSI, the UK is one of several high-income countries where over 60% of all the food that is consumed is high in salt, sugar and fat. The UK has the highest level of obesity in western Europe, according to a 2013 UN report, which found that 24.9% of adults in the UK were obese, compared with 21.3% in Germany, 17.2% in Italy and 15.6% in France. A separate study by the British Government Office for Science found that the UK had become a society where being overweight is “normal”.

The UK also continues to struggle with food waste: 7.3m tonnes of household food waste were thrown away in 2015, up from 7m tonnes in 2012. And 4.4m tonnes of this was considered “avoidable”, meaning that it could have been consumed.

Leaving the EU could be catalyst for positive change …

While EU membership has been positive in many ways for UK food sustainability, the bloc also has its flaws. The CAP, in particular, has been an issue from the perspective of food sustainability. In theory, therefore, leaving the EU provides a chance for the UK to improve its record on food sustainability. For example, many wildlife areas in the UK have been cleared and used for grazing sheep in order to qualify for EU subsidies. This is an extremely destructive use of land. Moreover, sheep products make up only 1.2% of the UK diet, so the gains from this policy are quite limited.

George Monbiot, a journalist and environmental campaigner, has argued that post-Brexit the UK government should continue to provide these subsidies, but only for the public good. That means “restoring ecosystems, preventing flooding downstream, and bringing children and adults back into contact with the living world”. And according to the Institute of Economic Affairs, a London-based think-tank, EU food was 15% more expensive than average global prices in 2002-11 as a result of EU regulation. Lower food prices could encourage people to eat better, fresher food, which would be positive for nutritional outcomes.

… but the risks that it will not be are high

On the flipside, leaving the EU will create significant downside risks for UK food sustainability. Although the government’s planned “Great Repeal Bill” will see all existing EU legislation transposed into British law, the so-called Henry VIII clause will give the government the power to change legislation without a vote in parliament. The government could, therefore, in theory roll back much of the EU-inspired food safety legislation of recent decades. Broadly, the stance of the current Conservative government is likely to be less supportive of upholding standards in food sustainability than the European Commission.

A key example of the potential negatives is provided by the terms of future trade deals with other countries. In January a story appeared in the British press about chlorinated chicken. Bob Young, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s chief economist, told a UK radio station that a UK-US trade deal would require the UK to accept American standards on food production that it had previously rejected. Among other things, this would include cattle injected with growth hormones, genetically modified foods that are not clearly labelled, and chicken washed with chlorine.

There are several other noteworthy differences between the EU and the US regarding food safety and quality standards. The EU bans 82 pesticides in the production of food that are permitted in the US, including permethrin and atrazine. A trade deal with the US could also open the door to genetically modified (GM) food in UK. Currently EU states have the right to ban GM food imports, and no GM crops are grown commercially in the UK. This could now change.

The chlorinated chicken story illustrates a very serious point. While the UK will be freer outside the EU to sign trade deals with other parts of the world, when these deals are with bigger countries (such as the US), the UK will be in a much weaker position. Although an EU-US trade deal would represent a negotiation between relative equals, the UK would be very much the junior partner in negotiations with the US, and as such might well now have to accept conditions such as lower food standards in return for a deal. Most, if not all, of the UK’s potential new partners for trade deals will have lower standards on food than the EU.

Eating worse outside the EU

More generally, food in the UK could become more expensive once it is outside the EU. With the UK set to leave the single market and customs union, non-tariff barriers will be introduced on trade with the EU, including on food, adding to costs that are likely to be ultimately borne by consumers. Meanwhile, the cost of labour in agriculture will rise as free movement ends. The UK’s National Union of Farmers sees an 8% increase in costs by 2025. If food becomes more expensive and standards are lowered, the quality of UK residents’ diets is likely to deteriorate, restricting progress on the key nutritional challenges facing the country.

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Brexit – Food Sustainability

Brexit – Food Sustainability

Brexit – Food Sustainability

Brexit – Food Sustainability

Brexit – Food Sustainability

Brexit – Food Sustainability

RV-Vijay

Author: RV-Vijay