UK food security and sustainability after Brexit

2nd March 2018

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Tony Tull

David Burrows weighs up the options for the UK’s agricultural sector following Brexit.

It’s impossible not to think about food when talking about Brexit. “50% of our trade is with the EU. We are bang next to it and it’s big and it’s very rich. If there’s no trade deal, we are really going to be in trouble,” says Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Some feel that’s putting it mildly. “A food system which has an estimated three-to-five days of stocks cannot just walk away from the EU, which provides us with 31% of our food. Anyone who thinks that this will be simple is ill-informed,” says Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University London.

Nevertheless, this is the impression that some government ministers are giving. George Eustice, the farming minister, claims the sector will be fine even if there is no trade deal and the UK is hit with hefty World Trade Organisation tariffs. Chris Grayling, the transport secretary and Brexiteer, suggests: “We will grow more [food] here and buy more from around the world.”

Let’s consider those two suggestions. Importing more is a long-standing yet quietly muttered Conservative party policy. But all those imports come with a lot of baggage in relation to food standards, safety and sustainability – think chlorine-washed chicken, and beef raised on deforested land. Importers working to a lower standard could also freely undercut British producers on price.

Growing more food might seem a good idea, too, if only there were enough people to do all the extra work. The farming sector relies heavily on migrant labour, but following the Brexit vote, numbers are already dwindling. A survey by the National Farmers Union showed labour shortfalls reached 29% in September.

Growing more food also means either finding more land, or further intensifying production. The latter brings with it a host of environmental and ethical headaches – from genetic modification to animal welfare – while vast, US-style mega-farms housing thousands of cows, pigs and chickens don’t appear to chime with Defra secretary Michael Gove’s vision for “a truly sustainable future for the countryside”.

It’s certainly a lot for ministers to consider as they untangle the UK from European systems. “It’s critical, as we think of food production and the role of farming in the future, that we develop policy that looks at the food chain as a whole, from farm to fork, and we also recognise the economic, health and environmental forces shaping the future of food,” said Gove at the Oxford farming conference in January.

Those environmental forces include climate change. In the UK, 10% of total emissions came from agriculture in 2015. However, the sector isn’t helping itself; it’s expected to miss its 2022 targets under the UK carbon budget system, according to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), and there has been little improvement in the past couple of years. “The pressure to reduce emissions from agriculture will not go away,” says David Baldock, senior fellow at the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP).

And neither will the need for farmers to adapt as the climate changes and extreme weather events increase. The current heavy reliance on imports will leave the UK exposed to shortages and price volatility, but this doesn’t seem to worry the government. In 2016, the CCC warned: “There is no national approach to ensure the resilience of the UK food system.” As yet, nothing’s been published. The Food Ethics Council suggests this is tantamount to “playing Russian roulette with climate change”.

Indeed, we know very little about the government’s detailed plans for post-Brexit food policy. Gove has made some interesting suggestions – including a unified certification scheme for sustainable food; and future farm subsidies directed exclusively towards the provision of public goods such as soil fertility, new wildlife habitats, biodiversity, and water quality. But any action has been kicked into the long grass, with no change to the current system until after 2024.

Based on the high turnover in recent years at Nobel House, where Defra is based, there could be half a dozen secretaries of state between now and then. Many other ministers and politicians have other views and priorities, especially as they try to woo non-EU countries into new trade deals. It’s all a bit of a mess.

“It’s difficult to discern what the UK government’s policy is at the moment [for food],” Professor Erik Millstone, food policy expert at the University of Sussex, told the magazine Poultry Business recently. “There are conflicting views between departments, and even between ministers within the same department.”

Millstone believes the UK could be sleepwalking towards a chaotic Brexit and food crisis. But let’s put the headless chickens running around Whitehall to one side and consider how the Brexit shake-up could be a blessing disguised as a curse.

The UK hasn’t had a food policy for 44 years. Instead, since it joined the European Economic Community in 1973, its policy in this area – along with environmental regulation – has been led by the EU. “We have come to depend on EU laws and money but they haven’t been working well enough, and they are set for the biggest shake-up in a generation,” says Sir Ian Cheshire, chair of Barclays UK and Debenhams. “[Brexit provides a] once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the way we eat and farm, and to regenerate our environment and countryside communities.”

Cheshire is chairing a new commission on the future of food and farming, organised by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). The commission is asking: what kind of country do we want to be, and what do we want from our food and farming systems?

The current system, underpinned by Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), is hardly a gold standard for sustainable food production: the number of farmers is in serious decline; the trend is towards large-scale, industrial production methods; and millions of tonnes of food are wasted throughout the supply chain.

There’s also a problem with the type of food we eat. In 1973, 45 years ago, McDonald’s hadn’t yet arrived in the UK; now, fast food outlets and coffee shops are on every high street, and twice as much food is consumed outside the home. As convenience has become king, obesity has become almost the norm. Research published in the journal Public Health Nutrition in February shows British families buy more ultra-processed food than in any other country in Europe – amounting to 50.7% of the diet.

Many people do not realise that agricultural subsidies have long been weighted towards foods that fuel obesity and poor health. But the facts – and the crippling health service bills – are becoming harder to ignore.

In October, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food, a think-tank based in Brussels) published research showing many of the most severe health impacts – from respiratory diseases to cancers and systemic livelihood stresses – are linked to industrial food and farming practices.

From farming’s heavy reliance on chemicals to boost yields, to the mass marketing of ultra-processed foods high in fat, salt and sugar – often targeted at children – to boost profits, food systems are “making us sick”, IPES-Food noted. And when health impacts are placed alongside social and environmental impacts, the case for action becomes “overwhelming”.

An overhaul is daunting, but the idea has attracted some unlikely supporters. In August, the World Bank published a report suggesting that price support mechanisms for unhealthy ingredients – such as cereals, palm oil and sugar – should be replaced with support for healthy ones. “CAP supports arable and livestock production more than fruit and veg,” says IEEP’s Baldock, “so whether we want to eat less meat and more plants is what we need to ask if we introduce a new regime of agricultural support.”

Divorce from the EU is a chance to redress the balance – and even weigh up some more controversial policies. “The idea of sustainable diets [based on more plants and fewer livestock products] is a big change and it’s here to stay,” says Baldock. It would be a “big mistake to sail off into the post-Brexit world and not think about that”, he adds.

A push to encourage eating more vegetables is one thing, but the evidence suggests the ‘carrot’ approach won’t be enough to curb obesity and emissions. The ‘stick’ of a meat tax, for example, is hard for politicians to swallow, but the sugar levy on drinks starting in April might be a taste of things to come.

“If policymakers are to cover the true cost of livestock epidemics such as avian flu, and human epidemics such as obesity, diabetes and cancer, while also tackling the twin challenges of climate change and antibiotic resistance, then a shift from subsidisation to taxation of the meat industry looks inevitable,” says Jeremy Coller, chief information officer of Coller Capital and founder of the Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return Initiative (FAIRR).

Livestock production represents 14.5% of all human-induced emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, and there is growing awareness that to meet the targets within the Paris Agreement, diets need to change. That some of world’s biggest meat companies are falling over themselves to invest in alternatives – including meat created in laboratories and plant-based ‘meats’ – suggests they can see what’s coming.

Some 45 years from now, the food we grow, process, cook and eat will be very different from that of today. Whether this food is low-impact, healthy and affordable could depend on the policies put in place after the UK leaves the EU. Brexit will be chaotic, but it is also a chance – for the first time in 45 years – to design a new system that is fit for the future. As City University’s Lang says: “UK food security and sustainability are now at stake.”

David burrows is a freelance journalist

Image credit: Richard Gleed

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