23 June is fast approaching, and while some argue that Brexit is Britain’s once in a lifetime opportunity for a better and more secure future, others see it as a mere fantasy of regaining its imperial powers. At times like this, when the mismatch in the UK’s state of self-reliance on horticulture is insufficient and the prevalence of diet-related diseases is at its highest, the possibility of leaving the EU could see the UK left in an unfavourable position. This piece explores the sober, yet opinionated, view of the current state of food in Britain and how the possibility of Brexit could be the catalyst to Britain’s current nutrition-related health crisis.
The UK suffers from “modern malnutrition”
Euromonitor International’s 2015 Fresh Foods data shows that the average person in the UK consumes 99kg of fruit and vegetables a year, which equates to 3.4 portions a day. In the next five years, this figure is expected to drop by 2.1kg per capita per year, bringing daily intake down to 3.3 portions in 2020. Not too bad for a national average? On the contrary. DEFRA reports that, in 2013, only 28% of women, 25% of men and 16% of children consumed the recommended amount of fruit and vegetables, and nearly 4.5 million adults and children included no fruit or vegetables on their plates.
Overweight and obesity rates reached an all-time high in 2014, affecting 62% of the adult population, and poor diet has recently overtaken tobacco as the number one source of disease in the UK. Modern malnutrition” is the result of a combination of severe vitamin and mineral deficiency and people being overweight or obese, and it is currently on the rise in the UK. Low intakes of fibre, minerals and vitamins, abundant in fresh fruit and vegetables, and high intakes of “unhealthy” fats and sugars can be causes of congenital diseases, poor growth amongst children and many non-communicable diseases in adult life, such as cancer, diabetes and coronary heart disease. Looking at our preliminary 2015 nutrition data, the average person in the UK consumes approximately 7g of fibre per capita per day from fruit, vegetables and pulses. In comparison, packaged food items contribute to 14g of fibre per capita per day, 5g of which come from bread alone. Nevertheless, even when put together with fruit and vegetables, the total still does not make up the recommended daily intake of 30g of fibre.
Purchase of fibre in the UK from packaged food and fruit, vegetables, and pulses in 2015
Source: Euromonitor International
UK’s horticulture is too small to support the nutritional needs of its own
In a recent report on horticulture in the UK, co-authors Professor Lang and Dr Schoen argued that UK horticulture is not ready to meet the guidelines for healthy diets. Over 1985-2014, there was a 27% reduction in horticultural production of fruit and vegetables combined, and the trade gap between UK’s fruit and vegetable imports and exports has risen to £7.8 billion per year.
Currently, horticulture occupies only 2% of farmed land in England; yet, it uses at least 35% of the casual labour force. Since the 2013 abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, the return to agricultural workers has been dishonourably low, and dependence on cheap migrant labour has been high. In addition to this, the use of UK’s arable land is unproductive, where less than a quarter of what is used to grow animal feed is currently used to grow fruit and vegetables.
According to DEFRA, the price of fruit and vegetables increased by 27% between 2007 and 2013, and it is still on the rise. In addition to this, 46% of food consumed in the UK is derived from imports, and 27% comes directly from the EU. According to Euromonitor International’s Brexit and the Implications for the Consumer Goods Industry, leaving the EU would lead to a weakened currency, potential loss of access to the commonwealth market and increased price of imports, leading to even higher prices of imported foods, which mostly applies to fresh produce. With such dependence on foreign agriculture, at its current state, the UK is unprepared to feed its own people.
According to Euromonitor International’s 2015 Packaged Food and Fresh Foods data, the UK is the second highest consumer of biscuits, snack bars, chocolate confectionery and crisps among 28 EU countries, and sales of these categories are continuing to rise in the UK. On the other hand, the UK is the fourth lowest consumer of fruit, vegetables and pulses among these 28 countries.
Purchase of Biscuits, Snack Bars, Chocolate Confectionary and Crisps among 28 EU countries in 2015
Source: Euromonitor International
Purchase of Fruits, Vegetables and Pulses among 28 EU countries in 2015
Source: Euromonitor International
It may be time for British consumers to take over the reins of food and agriculture
Should Britain exit the EU, there is a lot of potential for growth. Though a Brexit would lead to an immediate slowdown in the economy, the predicted drop in GDP long term would only reach around 2%. More money could be spent on UK-based investment, which, in fact, would lead to increased innovation, a boost in horticultural growth within its own borders and increased employment rates. Instead of sourcing most of its food from abroad, this would be the UK’s opportunity to reformulate Britain’s homeland food manufacturing and agriculture. In order for this to happen, the UK would inevitably have to subsidise its own farmers. At the moment, approximately £6 billion go directly to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), only half of which returns to British farmers. In the case of a Brexit, the UK would save the £3 billion; however how this money would be used, or whether it would suffice the cost of British farming, remains an unanswered question.
Voting stay is safer for UK’s food security
The UK has formed extensive relationships with the EU in the past 43 years in terms of food and agriculture. The EU provides nutritional security to the UK through increasing accessibility to cheap, fresh and versatile produce and putting into practice nutrition regulations, which improve the transparency and safety of food sold in Europe. The EU’s Food Safety policy prioritises human health within the food industry, for example, by conforming to EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) regulations related to nutrition and health claims or from farm to fork transparency.
If a Brexit occurs, trade with the EU will become more expensive, forcing the UK to step away from exchanges with neighbouring countries and increase trade with cheaper markets, such as former commonwealth Namibia, Nigeria, and/or Sierra Leone. According to Bruegel’s European political economy specialists, voting leave would mean 124 trade agreements would have to be renegotiated and reformed; and the UK’s food and agriculture could be left on a somewhat 3-legged structure, on the verge of collapse. Putting this in combination with already growing sales of nutrient-poor, yet energy-dense snack foods, reduced accessibility to cheap fruit and vegetables, and weakened nutrition legislations, paints a concerning future for Britain’s nutrition and health.