Paraskevi Seferidi, Research Associate at the Public Health Policy Evaluation unit, Imperial College London

Paraskevi Seferidi, Research Associate at the Public Health Policy Evaluation unit, Imperial College London explains how the new Agriculture Bill could improve the public's health. 

With exiting the EU, the UK will introduce a new agricultural policy. All EU Member States comply with a common European agricultural policy (CAP). The CAP provides financial assistance to farmers based on the amount of land they own. The UK government has guaranteed to continue these payments to its farmers until the end of 2020. After that, a new scheme of financial support will be introduced.

Current proposals for the post-Brexit agricultural policy are outlined in the new Agriculture Bill, which is currently making its way through the Houses of Parliament. The financial assistance scheme recommended in the bill offers ‘public money for public goods’. This means that farmers will receive financial support if they deliver some goals mainly related to environmental protection, access to the countryside, and the health of animals and plants. However, we believe that failing to explicitly incorporate public health as a public good in the new Agriculture Bill is a missed opportunity.

Agriculture shapes the way people eat, by affecting availability, affordability, accessibility, and quality of foods. This can have significant implications to public health. For example, low intake of fruit and vegetables is one of the most important dietary risk factors of non-communicable disease, including heart disease and stroke. Currently, only 1 in 3 Britons achieve governmental recommendations for consumption of five fruit and vegetables per day. At the same time, the majority of fruit and vegetables consumed in the UK are imported from abroad. The UK has now a unique opportunity to use its new agricultural policy to improve the public’s diet and associated health by supporting British grown fruit and vegetables.

In our recent research paper, we investigated the potential impact of gradually increasing land allocated to fruit and vegetables in England. According to data on Agricultural Land Classification (ALC), 19% of total agricultural land in England is suitable to grow fruit and vegetables. However, only 1.4% of land is currently used for fruit and vegetable production. We modelled two scenarios where agricultural land allocated to fruit and vegetables would gradually increase over seven years until it reaches 10% or 20% of suitable land (or 1.9% and 3.9% of total agricultural land respectively). Historical data can illustrate the feasibility of these scenarios; the average use of land for fruit and vegetables between 1983 and 1990 in England was 1.9%, similar to our least ambitious modelled scenario.

Our study suggested that increases in land allocated to fruit and vegetables can increase their consumption, saving up to approximately 18,000 cardiovascular disease deaths between 2021 and 2030, in our most ambitious scenario. Importantly, we found that these health benefits would favour the most deprived and reduce health inequalities, with 22% of estimated deaths occurring among the most deprived compared with 16% among the least deprived.

So it seems that UK land has the capacity to increase domestic production and consumption of fruit and vegetables. But how do we know that this extra production will be indeed consumed? Our paper assumed that, after considering losses between supply and purchases as well as household waste, extra fruit and vegetable supply will be met by consumer demand. We have the opportunity to achieve this through a comprehensive farm-to-fork agricultural strategy that intervenes across the supply chain. The UK National Food Strategy, launched last year, could have the potential to do this, should commitment and sustained leadership exist to prioritise a healthy and sustainable food system that incorporates public health goals.

There are ways that agricultural policy can support domestic consumption of fruit and vegetables by supporting accessibility, acceptability, and quality. For example, investing in short supply chains, such as through farm shops and local markets, can improve access to fruit and vegetables, improve quality, and reduce costs associated with intermediaries. Financial assistance for marketing and promotion of British fruit and vegetables, involving actors across the supply chain, can also lead to significant improvements to their acceptability and consumption. The UK can also make use of its public procurement for food and catering to support demand for fruit and vegetables. Finally, there are many innovative measures that can bring the consumer closer to local healthy food, such as the community-supported agriculture which involves direct collaboration between farmers and consumers.

Brexit would pose many challenges for the UK food system. Thus, it is now more important than ever to take bold actions to achieve a comprehensive food strategy that delivers health and planetary goals. The new Agriculture Bill presents an opportunity towards this goal that should not be missed.