Can Brexit put Britain on a diet?

The Royal Society of Arts is asking big questions about the future of our food as leaving the EU offers the chance of a radical shake-up. By David Burrows.

The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) suggested this month that just one of the 28 portions of fruit and veg consumed in the UK each week (it should be 35) is grown in Britain using British or non-EU workers.

“Our tentative progress towards five-a-day, eating 50% more fruit on average than in 1973, depends deeply on EU imports and EU-born workers on UK farms,” the RSA noted. “In 1994 the UK produced 79% of its own vegetables; today this is 55%.”

The findings were part of a report published by RSA as it launched a commission on food, farming and the countryside. The experts in the group will ask: what kind of country do we want to be and what do we want from our food and farming systems?

“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,” said the commission chair, Sir Ian Cheshire.

That’s an understatement given the grim picture RSA painted of the evolution of food systems and patterns of consumption in the past 40 years:

  • Fewer calories are consumed but diet-related ill health has risen, resulting in a £16 billion healthcare bill from an overweight and obese population.
  • Ten million tonnes of food is wasted annually, and the UK has “offshored” the environmental impact of the food consumed here. Reductions in UK agricultural emissions are also lagging behind other industries.
  • The number of farmers is in serious decline, and the trend is for large, industrial farms.

Cheshire said Brexit provides a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the way we eat and farm, and to regenerate our environment and countryside communities. [We] will identify practical and radical solutions, ensuring future policy delivers what the nation needs from food, farming and the countryside.”

It’s a brave but essential move given that the UK government has reportedly scrapped its major food and farming plan, and currently relies on policies dreamed up on the hoof by its transport secretary. Healthy food doesn’t appear to be on the environment secretary Michael Gove’s radar, either – that agricultural subsidies have for too long been weighted towards food that fuels obesity and poor health has for too long been under-reported.

As Professor Erik Millstone from the University of Sussex put it recently: subsidies are on foods that people are already overconsuming, such as fats and sugar, with little support for those that are underconsumed, such as fruit and veg. Others are also beginning to join the dots and identify the root of the problem – the World Bank has suggested that price support mechanisms for unhealthy ingredients should be scrapped to help curb obesity, for example.

Under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), nutrition has long been seen as something for member states to decide. But freed from the CAP, the UK has a chance to link food production and consumption and deliver a truly sustainable food system. It won’t be easy – agricultural ministers are historically reluctant to get involved with nutritional debates – which is why the work being done by the RSA and others is critical.

Cheshire and his team will be acutely aware that they will need to chew long and hard on what they have bitten off with their project, which is being funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. “Conversations” are planned around the country, with inquiries also taking place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. An interim report is slated for autumn next year, with a final report in spring 2019. Could that be too late?

Foodservice needs to get involved in the debate – and soon. As the RSA highlights:

  • People eat twice as much food out of home, often in the fast food chains now ubiquitous on the country’s high streets.
  • Coffee shops have boomed and supermarkets sell more prepared and processed food.

For too long the sector has hidden in the shadows, happy to expand across the country’s high streets and offer tokenistic efforts to voluntary initiatives aimed at providing healthy and sustainable food. The oft-used excuse is that firms don’t have the power over the supply chain enjoyed by retailers, but this doesn’t wash given the scale of operations run by McDonald’s and KFC, Compass and Sodexo. People are too fat and the food system is unfit for purpose – that’s the harsh reality but Brexit offers an opportunity to fix it.

 

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