How Brexit, Climate Change, and Covid Helped Break the U.K.’s Food System

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In its flagship report on the state of the U.K.’s food system, The Food Foundation reveals struggles across the country in the wake of Brexit, covid, and the ongoing impact of climate change.

“The Broken Plate” report from the Food Foundation reveals a broken post-Brexit food system across the U.K., with the poorest 20 percent of U.K. households needing to spend 47 percent of their disposable income just to meet the costs of the government-recommended diet.

The findings

“The way our food system has evolved over time has made unhealthy and environmentally unsustainable foods the norm, causing unprecedented levels of obesity and diet-related disease, and making food production and consumption major drivers of climate change,” reads the report.

“But the food system can continue to evolve and can be reorientated to support diets that are healthy for us and the planet. Government, businesses, city leaders and investors have the power to make these changes happen.”

The report builds on the 2021 National Food Strategy for England, which identified four key areas where dietary shifts are urgently needed: increased consumption of fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, decreased consumption of meat, high fat foods, salt, and sugar.

British high tea Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

The Food Foundation says increasing affordability availability, and appeal of healthy and climate-friendly foods needs to become a priority across the U.K.

Healthy foods are nearly three times as expensive per calorie than unhealthy options, the report notes, and sustainable options, such as nondairy milk, cost 60 percent more than conventional counterparts.

The disparity is further compounded by rising food prices; according to the report, food prices rose by 8.6 percent in the 12 months leading up to May 2022, with inflation at 9.1 percent. Food prices are expected to keep rising as a result of war in Ukraine, ongoing covid outbreaks, Brexit, and global warming’s impact on the food system.

According to the Food Foundation, the U.K. government introduced a £20 weekly ‘uplift’ to the Universal Credit program. That led to a drop in food insecurity rates until the uplift was removed last fall. A one-time £650 one-off payment was made to those in receipt of benefits in May, as well as a £400 per
household payment to support with energy bills, but the report says more strategic plans are needed to move the U.K. toward sustained healthy food for all.

Low income, low-quality diets

“People are often quick to unfairly blame themselves for making the ‘wrong’ choices without taking into account that the system is set against them choosing the healthy option,” reads the report. “People on low incomes have lower quality diets, higher rates of diet-related disease and higher levels of food insecurity—an issue that has been greatly exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis.

“Many of the barriers to healthy diets are greater for people on lower incomes and the food system exacerbates these inequalities. Shifting the drivers of dietary choice in favour of healthier foods has the potential to reduce these barriers and make healthy and sustainable diets the default and the easiest for everyone—including those on a low income.”

Photo by Davey Gravy on Unsplash

The report also highlights wage issues for food system workers; 22 percent of food industry workers earn the National Minimum Wage or below. Compared to the economy as a whole, it’s nearly three times the average.

“The metrics in this report tell a grim story: healthy and sustainable foods are rarely the most affordable, accessible or advertised foods, and in many cases the situation is deteriorating not improving,” the report concludes.

“But this is solvable. The public health crisis arising from obesity and diet-related disease and the contribution of the food system to the climate crisis are both entirely preventable. There are countless examples of people in the food system doing amazing work and showing that a better food system is achievable.”

The findings come as a recent review found a plant-based diet is the healthiest for both humans and the planet. That research analyzed findings from more than 40 studies.

“There are increasingly strong reasons to move away from industrial animal agriculture for the good of the environment, animals, our personal health, and public health,” the researchers wrote. “Plant-based animal product alternatives (PB-APAs) represent a highly feasible way to reduce animal product consumption, since they address the core consumer decision drivers of taste, price, and convenience.”

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