Brexit Is Going to Cause Unexpected Health Risks, Warn British Doctors

An unusual study exposes an overlooked consequence of the deal.

As of Monday, there are 60 days left before Brexit officially begins and the UK leaves the European Union. The nature of the UK’s future relationship to the E.U. has yet to be decided — on Tuesday the British Parliament is scheduled to vote on its terms of departure — but according to a new study, whatever deal is struck will have damaging implications for Britain’s health. A “no deal,” however, is the worst-case scenario.

In a study released Monday in BMJ Open, a team of researchers examine the impact four proposed Brexit deals could have on fruit and vegetable imports, an easily-overlooked consequence of the decision. The UK is heavily dependent on imports to meet its dietary needs: In 2017, 84 percent of fruits and 43 percent of vegetables in the UK were imported.

It goes without saying that fruits and vegetables are important to sustaining human health. Low fruit and vegetable intake is a major risk factor for disease, and diets rich in these nutrients are linked to a reduced risks of heart disease and stroke. The study points out that pre-Brexit UK already “performs poorly” in terms of fruit and vegetable intake: Only 27 percent of adults 19 to 64 and 35 percent of adults over 65 achieve daily recommended intakes. Brexit will only make matters worse.

“Fruits and vegetables are the most imported food commodity in the United Kingdom,” first author and Imperial College research assistant Paraskevi Seferidi, Ph.D., tells Inverse. “A change in the UK trade regime after Brexit is very likely to increase their prices and reduce their intake. At the same time, fruits and vegetable intake is very important for our cardiovascular health, and there are many public health initiatives to increase their intake in the UK.”

Brexit Protestors (31339189437)
Brexit protesters.

Price, Seferidi explains, already highly affects consumer choice, and when a food becomes more expensive, people usually to tend to buy less of it. Because previous studies quantified this relationship, allowing the team to estimate how price hikes after Brexit could affect intake of fruits and vegetables, they were able to estimate how this change in intake could affect rates of heart attacks and strokes.

They created estimate models based on four Brexit scenarios currently on the table, each of which would involve an increase in trade tariffs and transaction costs associated with additional border checks, which the UK would have to pay on imported goods. A “no deal” Brexit would lead to the greatest price hikes — a no deal would mean that the UK would leave the EU immediately on March 29, with no agreements in place about what the relationship between the two entities would be in future.

fruit, vegetable
Fruits and vegetables are necessary to fight off cardiovascular disease.

Here, they determined that a “no deal” would cause the price to rise by 17 percent for bananas, by over 14 percent for citrus fruit, and by about 15 percent for tomatoes. The team calculated that these rising prices would be linked to a drop in consumption — a dip of 11.4 percent for fruit and 9 percent for vegetables. They believe this could generate 12,400 extra cardiovascular deaths in Britain over the next decade.

While “no deal” spelled out the worst case scenario, the number of associated deaths from heart disease and stroke were predicted to rise in every Brexit scenario. Seferidi says these results were in line with their hypothesis, and because previous analyses had also shown that Brexit could increase food commodity prices, they could confirm “the robustness of our results.”

Ahead of publishing this study on Monday, companies associated with the British Retail Consortium — including Sainsbury’s, Asda, and McDonald’s — announced in a letter their concern for the future of fresh food in the United Kingdom. A “no deal” will be particularly resonant in March when, at that time of the year, 90 percent of lettuces, 80 percent of tomatoes, and 70 percent of soft fruit sold in the UK is grown in other EU countries.