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Oxford Population Health are to contribute to the most comprehensive assessment to date of the impact that food subsidies and taxes could have on public and planetary health.

Our dietary habits have significant impacts on both our health and the planet. Diet-related diseases are responsible for the second largest health burden in the UK (after tobacco), and food is responsible for a third of all UK greenhouse gas emissions. However, economic measures – including food subsidies and taxes – could potentially nudge populations towards healthier and more sustainable diets. This is to be investigated by a new project called CO-designing for healthy People and Planet: food system Economic Research (COPPER), which was recently launched through a £1.4 million funding grant from the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR).

COPPER will assess a range of potential economic policies, for instance how subsidies of fruit and vegetables could encourage consumers to take up healthier choices during their weekly food shop, or to what extent new taxes of foods high in salt and saturated fats could impact sales of these products. The aim is to provide a broad set of robust policy recommendations which could help create healthier societies and reduce the environmental footprint of food supply chains, if implemented.

The project is a collaboration between Oxford Population Health, the Nuffield Department of Primary Health Care Sciences at Oxford University, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), the Food Foundation, and the Universities of Exeter and Reading. The Oxford-based team will first conduct public surveys and choice experiments to test public attitudes and receptiveness to food subsidies and taxes aimed at either improving health or reducing the environmental footprint of foods. Working with the Food Foundation, members of the public (including those from disadvantaged backgrounds) will then be consulted via deliberative forums about these options, and asked to choose which of the policies they think are best.

Peter Scarborough, Professor of Population Health at Oxford Population Health, said: ‘We want our study to be as useful as possible to policymakers working in health, the environment, and the treasury. Policymakers need to know what the public value with regard to controversial policies aimed at changing prices of foods – especially in the current cost-of-living crisis.’

Policies identified as high-priority will be taken through to the modelling section of the project. Researchers at Exeter, Reading and LSHTM will estimate how consumers are likely to change their food purchasing behaviour in response to these subsidy and tax scenarios, and then estimate the impact of the scenarios on household budgets, tax revenue, GDP and jobs in the food industry. Alongside this, the Oxford team will apply established health and environmental models to large-scale, linked datasets of commonly available food and drink products, food consumption patterns and the environmental footprint of foods. This will generate estimates for the impact of the subsidy and tax scenarios on health (for the whole population and for different socio-economic groups), greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use and water pollution.

These efforts will culminate in the most comprehensive assessment to date of the impact of such policies on public health, health inequalities, the environment, household finances and the UK’s economy. By using advanced computer modelling and simulation data, the team will be able to predict the real-world impact of their policy proposals on shoppers and food manufacturers, including how purchasing habits change when prices go up or down. Later, the team will present their policy proposals to government policy makers to assess their feasibility.

Richard Smith, Professor of Health Economics at the University of Exeter, who is co-leading the project with Peter Scarborough, said: ‘Food subsidies and taxes are a major policy concern in the UK and globally, but teasing out evidence is incredibly complex in substantiating arguments behind new policy proposals. We’re delighted in being able to secure funding to engage with colleagues at Oxford, Reading, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and the Food Foundation on this study.’

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