Britain is a long way from being self-sufficient – and now is the time to reshape the food industry with health and sustainability in mind, writes Duncan Williamson.
Food – how we grow, rear and catch it and what we eat – seemed to be largely missing from the Brexit debate. The EU has a hand in almost every part of the food system. This includes taxes, trade deals, agriculture and fisheries subsidies, procurement, food safety and even the protected status of foods such as Stilton cheese and the Cornish pasty.
So what will Brexit mean for the food we put on our plates? As I am sure others will respond: it is hard to say. But this is an opportunity to make the UK a world leader when it comes to food laws and policy. We should seize the opportunity – and quickly – to shape food production in the UK, making it an exemplar to the world.
We know the UK government is committed to us eating more homegrown food. However, we are only about 54% self-sufficient; we grow a far smaller percentage of the fruit and vegetables we eat than ever before. We import the vast majority of our animal feed, with known impacts on areas such as the Cerrado in Brazil. The UK imports 30% of what we eat from the EU and we are dependent on it for fruit and vegetables.
In the UK we barely support our small farmers or horticultural industry. Our current farming system and the narrative from government is based on supporting the cereal and livestock sectors. Assuming business as usual, and what I believe is the most likely scenario, we will keep supporting these sectors at the cost of others.
There is the potential eradication of a commercial horticulture sector which is already underrepresented and does not receive subsidies. And yet a key part of any healthy sustainable diet is the need for it to be plant-based. There is huge risk that fruit and vegetable prices will go up and in turn people eat even less of them. Keeping the prices of other foods artificially low due to subsidies will only exacerbate this.
The big question for those connected to food is: how do we avoid this scenario and move to a thriving food system, which protects nature and provides people with affordable sustainable diets?
It must be a system that avoids the problems of the current one, which is focused on producing more calories, without taking account of nutritional outcomes or environmental effects. According to some estimates, diet-related ill-health kills more people than alcohol or smoking. The UK has become the fat man of Europe. This same food system is the main driver of biodiversity losses and causes soil erosion, water pollution and overfishing.
We need to challenge the mantra that we need to produce more food, whether it is 60% or 70% by 2050 or whatever the figure used. This is simply not true. We don’t know how much more food we need. Already we could, if we chose to, feed 12 to 14 billion people globally. It is all about what we grow and catch. Do we want to keep growing sugar crops, biofuels and animal feed, while more than 2 billion people are overweight and 800 million go hungry? Or do we want a system that ensures healthy, varied diets that are good for us and the planet?
We have solutions. We know what a healthy diet looks like. WWF UK’s Livewell has demonstrated that a healthy diet is plant based, with room for meat and treats. It is a diet that will lead to significant greenhouse gas reductions. Some companies recognise this and are working towards it, such as Sodexo with its Green and Lean programme.
The government has one of the biggest opportunities to enable this change. At least 12 departments have responsibility for part of the food system, with policies often pulling in different directions. The government needs to create a joined-up food policy, bringing together health, business, farming, the fishing industry, the environment and the Treasury. We can look to existing policies –
such as the childhood obesity strategy, the Eatwell guide and the 25-year plans for food and farming and the one for nature – and make sure they are complementary.
Brexit is an opportunity to finally deliver on the need for sustainable diets as part of a food system that protects people and planet. We need the political will to do this, and to work in a cross- sector, co-ordinated manner to make these simple solutions a reality.
Duncan Williamson is food policy manager for WWF UK.