Can domestic fruit and vegetable production help the UK's post-Brexit public health crisis?

By Niamh Michail contact

- Last updated on GMT

Can domestic fruit and vegetable production help the UK's post-Brexit public health crisis?
The UK's post-Brexit food policy must prioritise domestic fruit and vegetable production if the public's health is to survive the higher cost of eating healthily, according to a Food Foundation report.

A triple whammy of exchange rates, labour costs and trade tariffs means that the price of buying seven pieces of fruit and vegetables a day (as recommended by government guidelines) for a family of four will increase from £1,954 (€1,792) to £2,894 (€3,254) a year, according to a report by London-based think tank The Food Foundation.

For the poorest 10% of the population, this means almost half (46%) of the entire food budget will go on buying fruit and vegetables.

This comes at a time when, according to a 2016 study,​ Britons’ fruit and vegetable consumption needs to increase by 64% to be in line with the government’s recommended Seven-A-Day, yet figures from Public Health England and the Food Standards Agency shows that intake is actually declining, and from an already low base: 

According to recently published research​ by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, if the UK switches to the World Trade Organisation’s Most Favoured Nation tariffs, prices would increase by 3.1% for fruit and 4.0% for vegetables.

The researchers also predict meat prices to jump 5.8% and oils and fats by 7.8% which could result in healthier eating habits, but increase in the price of fruit and vegetables is greater than those expected for sugar, jam and confectionery, at just 2.3%.

Between 2008 and 2010, 10% of children ate five pieces of fruit and vegetables a day. Four years later, this was 8%. Consumption among adults for the same period fell from 29% to 27%.

The report, which can be downloaded here​, calls on UK policymakers to consider health when drawing up its Agriculture Bill to replace the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), and gives a number of recommendations.

For instance, it identifies 16 of the UK’s top 50 favourite fruit and vegetables that could be grown domestically: apples, broccoli, cauliflower cherries, courgettes, cucumbers, garlic, lettuce, mushrooms, onions, pears, peppers, spinach, spring onions, sweetcorn and tomatoes. 

Growing these vegetables in the UK would mitigate potential price increases, meaning fewer people priced out of a healthy diet. It would also bring benefits for farmers and the country’s National Health Service (NHS), the report said.

“Ministers should seize this potential along with the huge opportunity to grow demand; demand which could see the UK horticulture sector’s productivity rise from £2 billion (€2.25bn) a year to £3.3bn (€3.71bn),” ​write the authors.

It wants to see the government put in place measures so that producers have a steady secure of seasonal workers for the picking season, as well as rules that strengthen the Groceries Code Adjudicator’s role (currently under review) to protect farmers from unfair trading practices.

Retailers should also ramp up efforts to support whole crop purchasing and be more flexible on quality variations, which would reduce waste and increase farmer productivity, the report says.

Finally, ministers must prioritise horticulture, a farming sector which has over the years received less support than others such as dairy. For instance, farmers could be given financial incentives to switch to horticulture and land access to land for new farmers improved.

This is not the first warning over the UK's reliance on EU imports for healthy food. Read our interview​ ​on the UK's post-Brexit food policy options with Professor of Food Policy Tim Lang following the referendum result. 

In order to stimulate the demand side, it suggests a government-supported marketing fund, which could potentially be co-funded by retailers and producers, for British fruit and vegetables. The authors highlight that in 2015, £280 million (€315m) was spent advertising soft drinks, confectionary and snacks compared to just £16m (€18m) on fruit and vegetables.

Local authorities could also ensure British-grown produce is given more prominence in meals served in public institutions such as schools and hospitals.

Brexit: ‘A golden opportunity’?

As British policymakers and civil servants prepare to unpick 43 years of co-negotiated food legislation – part of some 12,295 EU regulations – food industry stakeholders have been lobbying the government on what the UK's new regulation could look like.

The liberalisation of the EU’s sugar regime lifted production quotas on beet sugar and isoglucose, for instance, was welcomed by the starch and confectionery manufacturers but raised concerns among public health campaigners.

Head of the Obesity Coalition Tam Fry and emeritus professor of nutrition policy at London Metropolitan University Jack Winkler have been petitioning the government for a domestic sugar regime ​that considers public health.

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