The security of micronutrient food supplies in the UK may likely be determined by future decisions about climate change, trade, diet, and crisis-response, recent research by the University of Southampton shows.
Over the past few years, the global food system has been subject to a series of mass disruptions, markedly the COVID-19 pandemic, and more recently, the Russo-Ukrainian war. Events like these have threatened food security across the globe and have in turn shone a harsh light on the relationship between socio-economic inequality and nutrition.
For certain micronutrients, the UK is not self-sufficient
A recent study published in the journal Nature Food comparing UK micronutrient security in 2016, 2010 and 1961 shows disparities in the security and reliance on certain imports and/or commodities.
Currently, the UK relies on imports to ensure that the population can access an adequate amount of bio-nutrients. When it comes to several key vitamins (A and C), the UK is not self-sufficient, driven by a 43.8% increase in exports and a 4.6% decrease in domestic production respectively, from 2010 to 2016. The same rings true for calcium, zinc, and iron, which over the same time-period decreased in self-sufficiency by 5.7%, 0.1% and 7.9% respectively, due to decreases in domestic production and increases in exports.
Although changes to domestic production and export levels account for the majority of this shift, the study found that trade agreements over the past 60 years have also significantly affected supply of key micronutrients.
The link between the UK’s micronutrient market and EU membership
Analysing data from the 1970s shows that the UK’s action in joining the European Union (EU) caused substantial changes in trade (imports and exports), which in turn affected the country’s supply of micronutrients.
This is interesting in the context of the UK today, which in the three months to May 2021 reported a total trade deficit, excluding precious metals, of £3.5 billion, arguably as a result of the UK’s departure from the EU in January 2021.
While the full impact of these disruptions remains to be seen as alternative trading supplies are developed, Brexit is well likely to influence the availability of micronutrients in the UK in future, the report found. Steps must therefore be taken to increase the security of micronutrients in the UK, against further expected disruptions to supply.
“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,” said lead researcher, Professor Guy Poppy, who is also deputy executive chair of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).
Consumers are increasingly seeking micronutrients to support immune health
When assessing a country’s level of food security, the conversation tends to revolve around calories, while micronutrients often go overlooked. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, reemphasized the importance of nutrition in building a robust immune system which, supported by studies showing links between healthy plant food diets and lower risk and severity of infection, increased consumer awareness around access to micronutrients.
“The pandemic has shown the importance of nutrition in keeping healthy and fighting off infection. It is important for public health that people can maintain a healthy diet through readily available food sources,” Poppy said.
The pandemic has accelerated concern about health, particularly immune health. A survey conducted by FMCG Gurus found that 65% of global consumers said that they have become more conscious about their immune health as a result of COVID-19, up from 57% in April 2020. As a result, demand for products and supplements that provide essential micronutrients is rising.