Post-Brexit trade agreements could lead to unhealthier diets

Post-Brexit free trade deals could lead to unhealthier eating in the UK and more diet-related deaths. But harms could be offset with targeted farming subsidies, now possible because of Brexit, and by making concerns for healthy eating central to trade policy, according to an Oxford study published today in the journal Nature Food

The new study, led by Dr Marco Springmann of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food at the University of Oxford and Dr Florian Freund of the Thünen Institute in Germany, combined food-system and health modelling to estimate how post-Brexit trade and agriculture policies could impact dietary health in the UK. The analysis traces how different post-Brexit policy strategies would affect the intake, availability, cost and sources of food. 

Dr Springmann says, ‘Our study shows that a ‘Global Britain’ strategy, that includes trade agreements with large exporters of foods that are neither healthy nor sustainable, runs counter to public health considerations and should be subjected to serious scrutiny.’ 

The study finds Britain is heavily reliant on imports and therefore especially vulnerable to changes in trade policy. Half of all food consumed in the UK is imported, including more than three quarters of all fruits and vegetables. At the same time, poor diets with too few fruits and vegetables, too much red and processed meat, and too many calories are one of the most important causes for deaths that could otherwise be prevented in the UK. 

The analysis shows that following a ‘Global Britain’ strategy by negotiating free-trade agreements with countries such as the United States, Australia and Canada, could increase imports and lower the costs of food such as beef, pork, wheat and oils. If these became an increased part of the national diet, calories per person would rise, leading to obesity and related health problems linked to cancers and heart conditions. There could also be a decline in British production of meats.

Meanwhile, more health-sensitive trade and agriculture policies could help avoid the adverse impacts on health. The study shows that when post-Brexit freedoms over agricultural policy are used to encourage British farmers to grow more fruits, vegetables, beans, pulses and nuts, it could change British diets for the better. Domestic production of each of these foods could rise by 18%, reducing the cost to the consumer and increasing their consumption, while avoiding higher intakes of unhealthy and high-calorie foods. 

There were additional diet and health benefits if, in tandem with reforming how agricultural subsidies are spent, tariffs on imports of healthy foods from any country were removed. The study finds that limiting free-trade agreements to fruits, vegetables, beans, pulses and nuts could avoid the risks to diets and health that are linked to opening Britain to increased imports of cheap meats and high-calorie foods.

Dr Freund maintains, ‘Our findings highlight the need for health-sensitive trade and agricultural reforms. More food is not always better, but it’s all about the right mix. Protecting people’s health requires consistent policies that don’t shy away from discouraging unhealthy foods and promoting healthy ones.’

The study ‘Health-sensitive trade and subsidy reforms are needed in the UK to avoid adverse dietary health impacts post-Brexit’ by Florian Freund and Marco Springmann will be available in Nature Food online on 28 June, 2021.