The study points to past trading agreements affecting key micronutrient availability during the past 60 years, with similar observations predicted for post-Brexit UK.
The University of Southampton study also highlights everchanging dietary preferences particularly post-COVID-19, where discussions emerge regarding the role of being self-sufficient.
The team, led by Professor Guy Poppy, suggests the analyses could identify the pinch points, where solutions in supply and/or demand would be needed to ensure the dietary health of a country alongside planetary health.
“If the UK is to become more nutrient self-sufficient, it will require a range of actions to change production and how much is grown domestically, coupled with some significant changes in consumer food preferences,” says Professor Poppy, who is Deputy Executive Chair of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).
The UK is not self-sufficient in several key vitamins (A and C) and minerals (calcium, zinc and iron). It relies on imports, rather than domestic produce, to provide enough of these micronutrients to ensure the population can receive their recommended daily allowance.
The team began examining how micronutrient security has varied in the United Kingdom from 1961 to 2017, before Brexit, taking supply and demand driver changes into account.
They also analysed 2017 overseas trade data from HM Revenue and Customs to assess overseas food supply prior to the exit from the EU and ran future scenarios around domestic production, imports and supply of animal and plant food sources.
Findings revealed that since the 1960s the UK has become much more reliant on imports to secure micronutrients.
For example, prior to joining the EU, most of our vitamin C was domestically produced, but we now import the majority in the form of fruit and vegetables.
About half of all these imports are from European countries, with Spain and the Netherlands the most significant contributors.
Trade agreement influence
The research also highlights that over the past 60 years, trade agreements have affected the supply of key micronutrients, emphasising the importance of trade on food supply as the UK negotiates post-Brexit deals.
“There is an increasing call for a more plant based-diet to help address climate change,” explains co-author of the paper, Dr Jenny Baverstock.
“But this will be a challenge based on current patterns, and especially if we continue to rely on imports of fruit and vegetables which can’t be grown in the UK.”
“This increase in vegetarianism and veganism will require careful policy and decision making, as the bioavailability of micronutrients from meat and dairy is something not easily replicated by plants,” she continues.
“Consideration will be needed over how to ‘eat for the health of the human’ as well as ‘eat for the health of the planet’.”
Source: Nat Food
Published online: doi.org/10.1038/s43016-022-00538-3
“Trade and dietary preferences can determine micronutrient security in the United Kingdom.”
Authors: Poppy, G.M., Baverstock-Poppy, J.J. & Baverstock, J et al.