28 June 2021
Post-Brexit free trade deals could lead to unhealthier eating in the UK and more diet-related deaths. But harms could be offset with targeted farming subsidies, now possible because of Brexit, and by making concerns for healthy eating central to trade policy, according to an Oxford study published in the journal Nature Food.
The new study, led by Dr Marco Springmann of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food at the University of Oxford and Dr Florian Freund of the Thünen Institute in Germany, combined food-system and health modelling to estimate how post-Brexit trade and agriculture policies could impact dietary health in the UK. The analysis traces how different post-Brexit policy strategies would affect the intake, availability, cost and sources of food.
Dr Springmann says, ‘Our study shows that a ‘Global Britain’ strategy, that includes trade agreements with large exporters of foods that are neither healthy nor sustainable, runs counter to public health considerations and should be subjected to serious scrutiny.’
The study finds Britain is heavily reliant on imports and, therefore, especially vulnerable to changes in trade policy. Half of all food consumed in the UK is imported, including more than three quarters of all fruits and vegetables. At the same time, poor diets with too few fruits and vegetables, too much red and processed meat, and too many calories are one of the most important causes of UK deaths that could otherwise be prevented.
The study analysis shows that following a ‘Global Britain’ strategy, by negotiating free-trade agreements with countries such as the United States, Australia and Canada, could increase imports and lower the costs of food such as beef, pork, wheat and oils. If these became an increased part of the national diet, calories per person would rise, leading to obesity and related health problems linked to cancers and heart conditions. There could also be a decline in British production of meats.
Meanwhile, more health-sensitive trade and agriculture policies could help avoid adverse impacts. The study shows that, when post-Brexit freedoms over agricultural policy are used to encourage British farmers to grow more fruits, vegetables, beans, pulses and nuts, it could change British diets for the better. Domestic production of each of these foods could rise by 18%, reducing the cost to the consumer and increasing their consumption, while avoiding higher intakes of unhealthy and high-calorie foods.
There were additional diet and health benefits if, in tandem with reforming how agricultural subsidies are spent, tariffs on imports of healthy foods from any country were removed. The study finds that, limiting free-trade agreements to fruits, vegetables, beans, pulses and nuts, could avoid the risks to diets and health that are linked to opening Britain to increased imports of cheap meats and high-calorie foods.
Dr Freund maintains, ‘Our findings highlight the need for health-sensitive trade and agricultural reforms. More food is not always better, but it’s all about the right mix. Protecting people’s health requires consistent policies that don’t shy away from discouraging unhealthy foods and promoting healthy ones.’
Notes to editors:
The study ‘Health-sensitive trade and subsidy reforms are needed in the UK to avoid adverse dietary health impacts post-Brexit’ by Florian Freund and Marco Springmann will be available in Nature Food at the following URL: https://www.nature.com/articles/s43016-021-00306-9.
For copies of the report, please contact: Kate O’Connor, Communications and Media Manager, Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford
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For interviews and more information, please contact: Dr Marco Springmann, Senior Researcher on Environmental Sustainability and Public Health, Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food and Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford.
About the Oxford Martin School
The Oxford Martin School is a world-leading research department of the University of Oxford. Its 200 academics work across more than 30 pioneering research programmes to find solutions to the world's most urgent challenges. It supports novel and high-risk projects that often do not fit within conventional funding channels, with the belief that breaking boundaries and fostering innovative collaborations can dramatically improve the wellbeing of this and future generations. Underpinning all our research is the need to translate academic excellence into impact – from innovations in science, medicine and technology, through to providing expert advice and policy recommendations. Twitter: @oxmartinschool Facebook: /oxfordmartinschool
About the LEAP programme
LEAP (Livestock, Environment and People) is a research project based at the Oxford Martin School. Its researchers are investigating the impact of eating meat and dairy on human health and on the environment. It is a collaboration between the University of Oxford, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Sainsbury’s and The Nature Conservancy. It is funded by the Wellcome Trust’s Our Planet Our Health programme.