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Political Print: ultra-processed foods can be a casualty of Brexit

Britain’s appetite for ready meals and sugary cereal has made headlines this week – just as ministers are considering the future of farm subsidies. By David Burrows.

The average household availability of “ultra-processed” foods in the UK is 50.4%. In other words, half of all the foods bought here are about as far from “real food” as regulations will allow. And for each percentage point increase in the household availability of these reconstituted meats, sugary cereals and ready meals, there is an increase of 0.25 points in obesity prevalence.

The findings are part of a special report in this month’s Public Health Nutrition journal. They have attracted widespread mainstream media attention this week thanks to their making the front page of the Guardian at the weekend (though hats off should really go to FoodNavigator, which first revealed the results in mid January).

The coverage couldn’t come at a better time, given that the government has the chance to rip up the rulebook on food policy and start again after Brexit. Instead of subsidies propping up all the food people are eating too much of – cereals, meat, sugar and the like – this is a chance to underpin a shift to healthier, plant-based diets and fewer processed products.

But will ministers at the Department of Health and Social Care, for example, get a look-in as DEFRA develops its plans for the future of UK farming?

A look back at the Queen’s Speech, in July 2017, and the section about the agriculture bill provided little room for optimism. The bill will “ensure that after we leave the EU we have an effective system in place to support UK farmers and protect our natural environment”. No mention of health there.

Fast-forward six months to the environment secretary Michael Gove’s speech at the Oxford farming conference in January this year, and there was plenty of evidence that some of the issues were on the team’s radar. “As well as thinking about how our interventions to support food production currently affect the environment, we also have to consider the impact on the nation’s health,” said Gove.

Helping people to make better choices in what they eat is fraught territory politically, he admitted, but “I have a responsibility to ask if public money supporting food production is also contributing to improved public health.”

Of course, he has punted any major decisions into the long grass, with much expected to stay the same until 2022 (subsidies at the current EU level have been guaranteed until then). But could this new research force him to get his skates on?

It should do – not least because evidence keeps piling up that the need for radical change is compelling. In October, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food, a think-tank based in Brussels composed of experts in the field of sustainable food) published a report showing how food systems are “making us sick”.

IPES-Food found that many of the severest health conditions afflicting populations around the world – from respiratory diseases to a range of cancers and systematic livelihood stresses – are linked to industrial food and farming practices. These include chemical-intensive agriculture, intensive livestock production, the mass production and marketing of ultra-processed foods and deregulated global supply chains.

What is very clear is that we don’t have a food policy in Europe,” IPES-Food’s co-chair Olivier De Schutter told me at the time. “What we have is an agricultural policy”. The rampant consolidation in the food chain will also have health implications, leaving people “dependent on heavily processed foods of poor nutritional quality”.

The European Commission’s recent communication on “The Future of Food and Farming” suggested that in Europe there’s more than a hint that change could be in the air. Campaigners said the clarity with which the paper presents the need to include health and nutrition in the regulatory framework of the Common Agricultural Policy is “unprecedented”.

We appreciate that the CAP alone cannot solve the high prevalence of overweight, obesity and chronic diseases in the EU, but it can significantly contribute if it sets the right incentive,” noted the European Heart Network, the European Public Health Alliance and Freshfel Europe in a letter to the agriculture commissioner, Phil Hogan, this month.

For example,” they added, “incentives can help to shift from high levels of meat and animal product consumption towards a higher level of consumption of plant-based foods, which would reflect dietary guidelines. This would also help to meet climate change goals and address other environmental challenges.”

There’s a long way to go before this will be reflected in any new CAP, if at all, but the days when agriculture and health commissioners, ministers and policymakers can happily ignore one another appear to be numbered. The UK won’t, according to the government, be involved in discussions on the future CAP, but there’s no reason that ministers can’t follow the commission’s lead – or use Brexit to take the lead.

Speaking at the Westminster food and nutrition forum last week, David Baldock, a senior fellow at the Institute for European Environmental Policy, said the concept of sustainable diets, based on more plants and fewer livestock products, is “a big change and it’s here to stay”. It would be a “big mistake to sail off into the post-Brexit world and not think about that”.