In a comment published in The Lancet, Professor Lang stressed that if the UK does crash out of the European Union on 31 October, the implications for food security in the country will be far-reaching.
Without a Withdrawal Agreement in place, France will be legally required to treat the UK as a ‘third country’ and impose the EU’s rules about tariffs and boarder taxes at key ports. While hauliers are being urged to register and complete paperwork to minimise disruption, Professor Lang noted the UK Government’s planning assumption is that ‘at least half the trucks’ might be unable to cross the boarder smoothly. The flow of traffic through UK ports could drop by a third or more.
“If this level of disruption continued for 2-3 months, the effects would be unprecedented in peacetime,” Professor Lang wrote.
In a leaked memo to cabinet ministers by Civil Service head and national security adviser Sir Mark Sedwill, he predicted that food prices could rise by as much as 10% with ‘disruptions’ to fresh produce supply.
Professor Lang believes, given the current state of play, this could well prove a low-ball estimate. “Most UK fresh food imports come from within the EU — 19% of fruit and vegetables from Spain alone — and even sources outside the EU such as Morocco or Egypt are via EU trade deals. Food prices are likely to rise by more than Sedwill's estimate of 10%. Disruption to just-in-time logistics would be compounded by a fall in the value of sterling,” he stressed.
In 2018, 28% of the food consumed in the UK came from the EU and an additional 11% was imported via EU trade deals.
The challenges of getting food across the boarder will be compounded by the timing of the UK’s exit from the EU.
“November is at the end of the UK agricultural growing season, so the availability of domestic fresh produce will decline,” Lang noted.
Additionally, food producers and retailers face additional storage constraints in November, when they are gearing up for the busy Christmas trading period.
Poor on the front line
These circumstances will have significant consequences for households already struggling with food insecurity.
“The main food bank organisers have informed the UK Government that their local groups do not have enough food, volunteer support, and storage capacity to deal with any uplift of need. They want a hardship fund to be established to ensure people have enough money for food,” according to Professor Lang.
Food bank usage is already soaring in the UK. According to data from the Trussell Trust, one of the country’s largest food bank providers, between 1 April 2018 and 31 March 2019, food banks in The Trussell Trust’s network provided 1,583,668 emergency supplies to people in crisis. Of these, 577,618 went to children. This is an 18.8% increase on the previous year.
A jump in the price of fresh produce, likely to coincide with a drop in availability, has serious implications for population health, Professor Lang stressed.
“The UK Government is making internal decisions that will shape future health outcomes.
“No public advice has been given yet on how this might restrict current dietary health advice. The UK already underconsumes fruit and vegetables. The concern is that Brexit disruptions will worsen the gap between advice and reality, particularly for people on low incomes.”
Professor Lang suggested it is particularly concerning that these decisions are being made behind a veil of secrecy, which, he said, has ‘left the public largely in the dark’.
'No-deal food planning in UK Brexit'
Published: August 04, 2019 DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(19)31769-6
Author: Tim Lang