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Illustration representing UK leaving the EU (Brexit)

The British withdrawal from the European Union will lead to changes in the UK’s trade relationships, and the resulting impact on the UK’s food supply will have a negative effect on diet and diet-related health. These are the findings of a study published as an Oxford Martin School Working Paper and co-authored by Dr Marco Springmann and Dr Florian Freund. 

Currently the UK imports 30% of its food from the EU, while 20% is imported from countries outside the EU and 50% is produced domestically. With its large import dependence, in particular of fruits and vegetables, any increase in trade costs are likely to have a negative impact on the availability and consumption of foods that are critical components of healthy diets and chronic-disease prevention. 

While Britain’s future trade regime is still unclear, the researchers used models of economic trade and national disease mortality to assess ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit scenarios in comparison to a no-Brexit baseline over a ten year period. The soft Brexit scenario assumed that trade costs would increase only due to non-tariff-measures that arise due to customs checks and possible regulatory divergences between UK and the EU. The hard Brexit scenario, assumed larger increases in trade costs, due to the imposition of new tariffs as well as increasing non-tariff measures.  

Analysis of the simulations showed that Brexit led to high absolute reductions in the average per-capita consumption of fruit, vegetables, roots and dairy ranging from reductions of half a serving per week each in the soft Brexit scenario to one serving per week each in the hard Brexit scenario.

Changes in dietary and weight-related risk factors led to an increase in overall mortality of 5,600 deaths in the hard Brexit scenario, and 2,700 deaths in the soft Brexit scenario. The economic implications of these increases in mortality included additional healthcare-related expenditure of £600 million in the hard Brexit scenario, and £290 million in the soft Brexit scenario. In addition, the losses of real GDP from Brexit could increase by 40-49% when the negative health implications are taken into account.

The researchers concluded that aligning agricultural production and trade with public health objectives is critical for preserving the health and welfare of British citizens, and Brexit could make this challenge significantly harder.