What impact will Brexit have on UK food policy

What impact will Brexit have on UK food policy

The UK's vote to leave the EU on 23 June triggered immediate political and economic uncertainty and has long-term implications for UK food manufacturers. Ben Cooper looks at how Brexit could impact on environmental and nutrition policy in the UK.

Food and farming did not a feature prominently in the Brexit debate which was both a surprise and considerable regret to UK food manufacturers only too aware of the potential impact the country leaving the EU could have on their businesses.

The industry has a huge amount riding on the forthcoming negotiations on trade, agriculture, labour and immigration policy but, in addition to watching and seeking to influence those defining discussions, food companies will be aware of the impact Brexit is likely to have over many other policy areas. Some, like environment, food safety and food labelling, also place the food industry at the epicentre of the Brexit shock.

The myriad implications for the food sector of the vote on 23 June can be divided into two categories: the immediate political consequences of the result and the implications for UK policy in the long term.

The political fallout has had an immediate impact on how the UK approaches the challenge of climate change, with incoming prime minister Theresa May disbanding the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and rolling responsibilities for climate change policy into a new, larger Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. 

Widely perceived as a downgrading of the focus on climate change, the move was roundly condemned by environmentalists, with Friends of the Earth calling it "shocking news". Some were more positive, suggesting incorporating climate change into a more substantial department with a wider industrial brief would actually raise the prominence government gives the issue and improve the effectiveness of climate change policy.

The political shock caused by the unexpected victory for the "Leave" camp at first looked likely to make an immediate impact on UK policy on diet and health, with speculation outgoing prime minister David Cameron would seek to push through his long-awaited child obesity strategy as a legacy policy. However, the possibility of this immediately receded with David Cameron's accelerated departure and the arrival of May in Downing Street. The child obesity strategy now looks set to wait until parliament resumes in the autumn, but when it does its content could well have been influenced by the vote on 23 June.

Facing huge uncertainty and disruption in the wake of the Brexit vote, the UK food sector has not only set out its "manifesto" for the country's negotiations with the EU, but has also called on government to make a "firm commitment to avoid introducing planned burdens on business", with measures that might be included in the child obesity strategy and the soft drinks levy clearly in mind. Once again, campaigners are far from happy with the turn of events, and have suggested industry will gain concessions owing to the increased pressure being placed on business as a result of the vote.

Another significant political consequence is the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). The suggestion by some political pundits that Leadsom was handed the Defra brief as punishment for her ill-chosen remarks about motherhood during the Conservative leadership campaign will hardly be viewed kindly by food companies or farmers.

Significantly, Leadsom was a prominent campaigner for Brexit, in contrast to departing Defra Secretary of State Liz Truss, and her appointment sees a pro-Brexit politician in charge of a department responsible for swathes of policy shaped by Brussels. She will not only have the onerous task of overseeing the unhooking of UK food and agriculture policy from the EU but will be doing so under the watchful and possibly sceptical eye of a food manufacturing sector that was predominantly in favour of remaining in the EU. It is clear Leadsom will have her work cut out not only placating her new boss but also building a rapport with food manufacturers.

The huge array of possible long-term implications and ramifications for UK environment policy stemming from Brexit provides further vivid demonstration of just what a momentous decision the UK took on 23 June.

In a paper published before the vote, prominent food policy expert Professor Tim Lang of City University in London, suggests the EU's role in shaping environmental policy has been "considerable", with the bloc acting as a "champion of cross-border compliance". He adds in the paper, co-written by Victoria Schoen of the Food Research Collaboration, that "arguably, this has been one of the EU's most positive roles in general and it has had definite and mostly positive effects in the food sphere".

Lang stresses the value a supranational organisation can bring to environmental policy. "If anything shows the value of thinking beyond national borders, it is the environment. Air, water, sea, food and wildlife all cross-national boundaries."

The course the UK government takes on environmental policy could well be mirrored in other areas where EU directives substantially shape UK policy. Rather than departure from the EU resulting in an immediate and clearly unsustainable policy vacuum, a decision could be taken in the short term to retain what is in place, with a gradual process of weeding out, adaptation and policy reform taking place over a longer period, which could, in theory, result in a policy framework more tailor-made to the UK's particular needs.

With that in mind, it need not be that the positive policy influence Brussels has had on environment policy would be lost. However, clearly the scope for international cooperation and co-ordination the EU brings is particularly crucial in the environmental sphere. Lang and Schoen cite EU progress in tackling air and water pollution, promoting greenhouse gas reductions and addressing food waste as particularly significant. It is therefore hard to see this not being compromised to some degree with the UK departing from the European institutions that have been responsible for shaping a coordinated approach to addressing environmental issues across the EU.

Such is the concern regarding the impact of Brexit on the UK's environmental sustainability efforts that a group of some 85 organisations, convened by sustainable agriculture pressure group Sustain, last week wrote a joint letter to David Davis, the new Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (Brexit Secretary), urging, among other things, that his new unit's terms of reference include public health and sustainability. The letter also called on Davis to draw on expertise outside the civil service to support fact-finding and development of options and that "respect for scientific advice on environmental and public health matters" be prioritised, for example when advising on environmental legislation and fishing quotas.

As the Lang and Schoen paper points out, the "diet-health connection is complex and is one which the EU has side-stepped in [the] Common Agricultural Policy". Indeed, nutrition policy per se has not been a particularly active area for EU policymaking. National governments have retained healthcare as a national government responsibility, and while there has been some important EU-wide regulation on food health claims and food labelling, there has been relatively little movement towards EU-wide co-ordination on nutrition and public health. "The EU's role in diet and health has been limited to general health promotion," Lang and Schoen conclude.

Indeed, had the UK wished to have made its uniform front-of- pack nutritional labelling system mandatory it would have been prevented from doing so by EU food labelling regulations. Malcolm Clark, co-ordinator of the Children's Food Campaign, says leaving the EU "offers the potential to change that and make it mandatory."

Clark also notes wrangling within the EU has hampered the process of building public awareness around the voluntary traffic lights front-of-pack labelling system. The introduction of the UK's system was challenged in the European Commission on competition grounds by the Italian government. "There hasn't been the investment in the public roll out partly because of the uncertainty that has created about it," Clark says. "It hasn't had the complete public awareness campaign that was expected."

It is significant the Children's Food Campaign is a signatory to the Sustain letter, again underlining how nutrition, environmental and agriculture policy should, in an ideal world, be co-ordinated. In fact, particularly in light of mounting public concern around dietary health issues, what could be more logical and desirable than for a country's agricultural policy to be informed by dietary health criteria?

The tenor of the Sustain letter and much of the rhetoric emerging from environmental and health campaigners and industry in the wake of the Brexit vote has been that of huge concern and no little alarm at the potential consequences. However, in stressing the benefits of a joined-up approach to meeting the UK's particular environmental, agricultural and public health objectives, the Sustain letter points towards one possible benefit that could, in theory, arise out of the fresh start Brexit would represent.