Sugaring the Brexit pill

Britain’s sugar policy is a contradictory mess – but leaving the EU is a chance to bring agriculture and health goals into line. By Professor Jack Winkler.

The UK government is drowning in dissent, divisions, plots and power struggles. The conflicts that receive most media attention focus on the prime minister and Brexit.

But the contradictions that will most affect the food industry and public health are largely unreported, even invisible. They concern sugar – and the three parts of government currently active in the area are working at cross-purposes. Let me explain how.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) keenly supported the removal of EU production quotas on sugar beet, which were eliminated on October 1st. This will lead to substantial increases in supply and lower prices. British Sugar, the UK’s monopoly beet sugar processor, is raising output by 50%. Al-Khaleej Sugar, a Dubai company, plans a new refinery in Yorkshire that will double UK production.

As such, we are making more and cheaper sugar available in the midst of an obesity epidemic. About 60% of UK adults are overweight or obese. Almost 20% of children are obese by the time they leave primary school; 9% before they even enter it. This is the most unhealthy sugar policy anyone could possibly design.

At the same time, the government has proclaimed a Childhood Obesity Plan. As part of it, Public Health England, an executive arm of the Department of Health, has initiated a programme for reducing the sugar content of nine categories of mass-market sweet foods: breakfast cereals, yoghurts, biscuits, cakes, confectionery, pastries/morning goods, puddings, ice cream and sweet spreads. It is reinforcing an existing trend: most food manufacturers which sell enough to affect public health already have sugar reduction strategies in operation.

Meanwhile, the Treasury is imposing a soft drinks industry levy – a graduated three-tier tax designed to stimulate reformulation of the products that are the leading source of sugar for UK consumers. It comes into force in April 2018, but most manufacturers have already cut their sugar content to escape the charges.

Thus, different parts of the government are simultaneously working to increase the supply of sugar and to decrease its consumption. One part of government is lowering the price of sugar while another is raising it. But it is not just the media who have remained (largely) silent about this contradictory policy.

DEFRA is the dominant player in this area, so other parts of government are not allowed to comment publicly. Politicians may mouth platitudes about “joined-up government”, but the civil servants who do the work must keep their mouths shut.

For food manufacturers, retailers with own-label products, or foodservice companies with in-house recipes, this is more than routine political hypocrisy. It creates a practical economic problem. In a very price-competitive market, the availability of ever more sugar at ever lower prices will at the least counteract efforts at reformulation; it may even undermine them.

Policy critics should say what they would do instead. After Brexit, any UK government will have to design a new sugar regime. This is an opportunity to balance agriculture and health goals, as the EU never has. The present problem is increased availability of cheaper sugar. The alternative is to produce less and more expensive sugar. To re-establish production quotas on sugar beet with a high support price.

This is compatible with DEFRA’s role of supporting UK agriculture. If quotas and prices were set at appropriate levels, sugar beet farmers would make more money while producing less sugar. The apparent losers would be those using sugar, who would be paying more for ingredients. But they are already committed to sugar reduction. Higher prices would give them economic, as well as moral, incentives to use less.

Professor Jack Winkler is emeritus professor of nutrition policy at London Metropolitan University.

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