Abstract Brexit will have profound implications for health and health policy yet, while much attention has focused on health professionals, medicines and health protection, the risk of food insecurity, and thus health, has received less attention. We identify five major threats to the availability and affordability of food supplies. These are a lack of regulatory alignment restricting ability to import foods from the EU and beyond, a shortage of agricultural labour in the UK, increased prices of imported foods due to tariffs, damage to supply chains, for example, due to customs delays and loss of interoperability of transportation, and damage to agricultural production and food flows in Ireland. Introduction It is fast becoming clear—irrespective of one’s voting preferences—that Brexit is likely to change fundamentally the UK food system and thus, a key determinant of health. A new report from the House of Commons Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Committee indicates that food prices, trade and jobs, and food flows across borders—especially in Ireland—look set to be altered and, at worst, disrupted,1 with potentially important implications for health.2 Even though many who voted Leave were influenced by nostalgia, their memories seem at best partial. Until the mid-20th century, the UK was clearly among the leading global powers. The sun never set on the Union Jack and the Royal Navy ruled the seas, and trade disputes, such as the right to sell opium to China, could be settled by sending a gunboat.3 Today, some see Brexit as a chance to refashion the Commonwealth into ‘Empire 2.0’,4 even sending one of the Royal Navy’s few remaining ships back to the South China Sea.5 They forget that until 1954 food was rationed and, during World War 2, the UK faced serious risk of two-thirds of its food supply being cut off. Today, it still imports heavily, mostly from the EU. And the growth of foodbanks in the UK is a reminder of how precarious the situation is now for some of the most vulnerable in society.6 There are many reasons the UK should take its food security seriously once more, particularly that the food system has aligned over 50 years with the European Union. There are at least five reasons why Brexit may threaten this security. Five threats The first threat is to supplies of imported foods. The UK produces only ~60% of the food it consumes, by tonnage, and only 49% by value.7 31% of UK food, by value, comes from EU member states. The smooth flow of these movements is possible because of decades of work by the EU. Food from the rest of the EU can cross the UK border by virtue of its conformity with the rules of the single market. Food from the rest of the world can be imported, much via Rotterdam, with considerable confidence in its safety because of the agreements reached by the European Food Safety Authority and its system of regular inspections in 130 countries.8 The UK has been unable to explain how either of these will work under its preferred approach to Brexit. Even now the British diet contains too few fruit and vegetables for optimal health but, with 90% of fruit and 45% of vegetables imported, mostly from the EU, this will inevitably be disrupted. The second threat is to existing domestic food production, dependent on migrant labour. The 27 000 full-time migrants work in agriculture and 70 000 more in food manufacturing, 33% of its total workforce. Another 75 000 work seasonally in horticulture, picking ‘British’ fruit and vegetables.9 These workers are unwilling to accept the fall in the value of sterling (and therefore remitted earnings), xenophobia and potential loss of rights as EU citizens. Already in 2017 some growers were unable to complete the harvest and some are moving production abroad.10 The third threat is to food prices. Some politicians want a ‘hard’ Brexit, trading on World Trade Organization (WTO) terms, while others want complicated special new trade deals which enable Britain to ‘have its cake and eat it’. Either is likely to impose food tariffs which retailers estimate will be an average 22%, thus raising consumer prices.11 Others blithely think new deals can be done overnight, ignoring how they take years, let alone that EU membership already gives the UK access to 750 trade deals with the rest of the world. Some British ministers argue that these deals can be continued, but a recent analysis shows that, even if agreement could be reached, simply translating them into the post-Brexit context will be extremely difficult.12 Those advocating WTO terms have been unable to show how these will address challenges posed by existing quota regimes, with an analysis of the seemingly simple case of lamb and mutton revealing extraordinary complexity.13 Fourth, there is a real threat to logistics. Of the millions of truck journeys transporting food across EU borders each year, only ones with suspect paperwork are ‘brought in’ for inspection, which average 2 min per truck. If checks increase in numbers and complexity, even to 4 min because of loss of EU paperwork, it has been estimated that traffic jams at Dover and Calais could reach 20 miles long within days. This assumes the trucks will be available. An estimated 75 000 British trucks transporting goods on EU roads will have to compete for a small number, perhaps 1 200 permits, as well as complying with many complex new procedures.14 Fifthly, there is a threat to food production on the island of Ireland. The agri-food sector on the Ireland of Ireland is highly integrated, with produce often crossing the border between Northern Ireland (NI) and the Republic several times during processing. Intra-Ireland agri-food trade is the biggest goods trade in Ireland, worth £4.5bn in NI alone. The border is 300 miles long, with 275 crossings. During the Troubles, only 20 of them were open, but heavily fortified with military checkpoints. Reintroducing hard borders will inevitably disrupt this complex system and while some politicians have argued for advanced technological solutions, these are recognized by informed observers as fantasy currently.15,16 Although the UK government has committed to upholding the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, some British politicians are now questioning this commitment.17 The EU has, rightly, said that arrangements within the UK are a matter for the UK alone so only two options seem possible. Either a ‘red line’ is imposed within Ireland (if NI is forced out of the single market by London), disrupting the existing arrangements, or one is created in the Irish Sea, de facto reuniting Ireland (but against the wishes of the Conservatives’ Democratic Unionist Party partners in Northern Ireland). The task of sorting out this delicate matter keeps being put off. Conclusions Those who cling to memories of the past seem to forget that the UK once came close to starving. It survived, but only with a supreme national effort that united the nation.18 The situation now is obviously different, in many ways. Hostile submarines no longer threaten the UK’s supply chains but, on the other hand, the nation is now divided to an extent not seen in decades. Most importantly, the complex modern supply chains that sustain regionalized and globalized food markets create new problems. Concerns about their ecological unsustainability19 raise important public health issues but, in the immediate future, the main concern must be their vulnerability to political and economic shocks such as Brexit. Importantly, recent events have shown that such fears are real. When Kentucky Fried Chicken changed its distribution contract to the logistics company DHL, a majority of its restaurants in the UK closed within a few days because supplies failed to appear.20 At some point, the penny might drop that Brexit poses a serious threat to the availability and affordability of food and, ultimately, to the diet-related well-being of the British people. Conflict of interest M.M. is on the Advisory Board of Healthier in the EU, an organization campaigning for continued EU membership References 1 EFRA Committee . Brexit: Trade in Food. Third Report of Session 2017–2019. HC 348. London: House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, 2018 . 2 Lang T , Millstone EP , Marsden T . A Food Brexit: Time to Get Real—A Brexit Briefing . Falmer : Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex; Cardiff University Sustainable Places Institute; and City, University of London , 2017 . 3 McKee M . Opium, tobacco and alcohol: the evolving legitimacy of international action . Clin Med 2009 ; 9 ( 4 ): 338 – 41 . [published Online First: 2009/09/05]. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS 4 Koram K , Nisancioglu K . Britain: The Empire that Never Was: Critical Legal Thinking, 2017. http://criticallegalthinking.com/2017/10/31/britain-empire-never/ (16 February 2018, date last accessed). 5 Panda A . The British Royal Navy Will Send a Frigate to the South China Sea: The Diplomat, 2018. https://thediplomat.com/2018/02/the-british-royal-navy-will-send-a-frigate-to-the-south-china-sea/ (16 February 2018, date last accessed). 6 Loopstra R , Reeves A , Taylor-Robinson D et al. . Austerity, sanctions, and the rise of food banks in the UK . Br Med J 2015 ; 350 : h1775 . doi:10.1136/bmj.h1775 [published Online First: 2015/04/10]. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS 7 Defra . Agriculture in the UK 2016 . London : Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs , 2017 . 8 McClean P . Brexit Dishes Up Food Safety Dilemma for UK: Financial Times, 2017 . https://www.ft.com/content/c4999e54-3702-11e7-bce4-9023f8c0fd2e (28 February 2017, date last accessed). 9 House of Commons Library . Migrant Workers in Agriculture. Commons Briefing Papers CBP-7987. London: Parliament, 2017 . 10 O’Carroll L . British Farmer Moves Fruit-Growing to China Over Brexit Uncertainty: The Guardian, 2018 . https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/feb/11/british-farmer-moves-fruit-growing-to-china-over-brexit-uncertainty (16 February 2018, date last accessed). 11 Milliken . UK Risks 22% Tariff on EU Food Imports if no Brexit Deal—Retailers: Reuters, 2017 . https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-eu-tariffs/uk-risks-22-percent-tariff-on-eu-food-imports-if-no-brexit-deal-retailers-idUKKBN17M1LM (2 April 2018, date last accessed). 12 Ungphakorn P . Grandfathering EU Free Trade Deals for the UK: A Look at an Actual Text, 2018 . https://tradebetablog.wordpress.com/2018/02/13/grandfathering-eu-ftas/2018. 13 Ungphakorn P . The Limits of ‘Possibility’: Splitting the Lamb-mutton Quota for the UK and EU–27, 2017 . https://tradebetablog.wordpress.com/2017/01/06/limits-of-possibility/ (16 February 2018, date last accessed). 14 Roberts D . No-deal Brexit Would Trigger Wave of Red Tape for UK Drivers and Hauliers: The Guardian, 2018 . https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/feb/08/no-deal-brexit-would-trigger-wave-of-red-tape-for-uk-drivers-and-hauliers (16 February 2018, date last accessed). 15 Dunt I . Disaster Road: The Brexit Irish Border Plan and Why it Won’t Work: politics.co.uk, 2018 . http://www.politics.co.uk/blogs/2018/03/29/disaster-road-the-brexit-irish-border-plan-and-why-it-won-t (2 April 2018, date last accessed). 16 McFarlane G , Lewis T , Lang T . Food, Brexit and Northern Ireland: Critical Issues . London : Food Research Collaboration and Chartered Institute of Environmental Health , 2018 http://foodresearch.org.uk/publications/food-brexit-northern-ireland/ (10 April 2018, date last accessed). 17 Jack I . The Good Friday Agreement is Under Attack. Can We Really Risk Ditching it?: The Guardian, 2018 . https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/23/good-friday-agreement-irish-brexit-northern-ireland (28 February 2018, date last accessed). 18 Lang T . The complexities of globalization: the UK as a case study of tensions within the food system and the challenge to food policy . Agricult Hum Values 1999 ; 16 ( 2 ): 169 – 85 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS 19 Tomlinson I . Doubling food production to feed the 9 billion: a critical perspective on a key discourse of food security in the UK . J Rural Stud 2013 ; 29 : 81 – 90 . doi:10.1016/j.jrurstud.2011.09.001 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS 20 Topping A .People Have Gone Chicken Crazy’: What the KFC Crisis Means for the Brand: The Guardian, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/feb/24/people-have-gone-chicken-crazy-what-the-kfc-crisis-means-for-the-brand (2 April 2018, date last accessed). © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Faculty of Public Health. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of Public Health – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 26, 2018
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