Britain is highly dependent on imported food. By value, imports make up more than 90% of the fruit and vegetables consumed in the UK and half of the meat. Brexit is expected to increase trade costs and make food imports more expensive, something that could lead to changes in diets and dietary risk factors that influence health.
In fact, Brexit could lead to up to 5,600 diet-related deaths per year by 2027, additional healthcare expenditure of £600m, and increase the GDP losses of Brexit by up to 50%. That’s according to estimates my colleague Florian Freund and I have published in a new Oxford Martin School Working Paper.
Between a hard and a soft Brexit
Analysing the potential implications of Brexit is a tricky business. The concrete details of Brexit remain unclear. Proposals range from various forms of “soft Brexit” that include a new trade agreement with the EU, to a “hard Brexit” in which the UK falls back on the (higher) tariffs set out by the World Trade Organization.
We evaluated these opposing ends of the spectrum and compared them to a no-Brexit (“remain”) scenario. We used an agriculture-economic model to simulate the impacts that changes in tariffs and regulatory measures could have on the agricultural sector in the UK. And we used a national disease model to estimate what the resulting dietary changes would mean for mortality from chronic diseases, such as coronary heart disease or cancer.
Given the UK’s import dependence, in particular for fruit and vegetables, any Brexit-related increase in trade costs will make it harder to get hold of foods that are critical components of healthy diets and chronic-disease prevention. Whatever form Brexit might take, our analysis suggests that it will significantly impact the British food system and negatively affect the health and welfare of British citizens.