- People care deeply about food, and are concerned with a range of social goods: nutrition, price, provenance, and the environmental and air-quality impacts of food production – be that in the UK or abroad. The public puts significant trust in well-regulated supply chains that reflect their personal and cultural values. For no other sectors are the challenges and opportunities of Brexit as extensive as they are for food and agriculture.
- The complexity of the food system and the ongoing uncertainties of the Brexit process create multiple risks and make specific forecasts of its impact difficult to quantify. The food consumed in the UK is the outcome of a complex set of dependencies, interactions, market forces and governance frameworks across a wide range of policy areas. Brexit, for better or worse, means a major structural change in policy and in how people think about the food they eat.
- The greatest risk is that of poor management where, in the interests of expediency, insufficient attention is given to the values that create a healthy and sustainable food system. A two-tier regulatory system could emerge whereby the UK produces food at higher standards but, under new trade relationships, imports cheaper and potentially lower-quality food from countries with reduced welfare or environmental standards.
- Cheaper food typically derives not only from comparative advantage or scale, but also from willingness to transfer costs to other areas, particularly the environment and public health. For instance, increasing the availability of cheap but calorie-dense and nutrient-poor foods may add further to the burden on health services arising from overweight and obesity. This is not in the public interest, and may undermine confidence in the food system.
- But a carefully managed Brexit could also offer a historic opportunity to reassess and reformulate legislation, policies, practices and institutional arrangements that take better account of the needs of different actors in the food system (such as farmers, retailers, consumers, and health-conscious and environmentally aware citizens) in the UK and abroad. It could also be opportunity to equip the UK’s food system with the tools and resilience necessary to tackle challenges emanating from climate change, environmental degradation and increasing geopolitical instability.
- The UK must take a comprehensive, cross-government approach to fostering a post-Brexit food system founded on clear, coherent goals across trade, agriculture and food policy that protect the environment, ensure animal welfare, improve public health and guarantee the availability of nutritious food for the current and future generations. Aligning policy across multiple domains, including the devolved administrations, will require consultation, deliberation and agreement among a multitude of actors.