What is the impact of COVID-19 on the food system of the UK?

A research team from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Rural Policy Research (CRPR) led by Prof. Michael Winter OBE, will focus on the management of the disruptive social and economic impacts of COVID-19 on the UK’s food supply chain.

The research is being undertaken as part of the UKRI-ESRC’s open call for research and innovation ideas aimed at addressing and mitigating the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Trade and Agriculture Commission report: ‘bold vision’ or ‘hollow’ promises?

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

These words are not mine but a question posed by Speciality Food on publication of the Commission report in March. Given the high profile of the debate around food standards in the run up to the last-gasp Brexit deal, and during the passage through Parliament of the Agriculture bill, the response in the media to the publication of the Report has been surprisingly low-key. It is not as though the fears over imports of chlorinated chicken or intensively reared beef have somehow evaporated nor, indeed, that food exports have been smooth since January – the plight of the fishing sector  to take the most obvious and high-profile example.  And the Commission itself was a direct response to concerns over trade, including a petition with 2.6 million signatures urging the protection of UK food standards and bans on certain pesticides and hormones. So why the muted response in the mainstream media? Possibly the clue lies in the Speciality Food headline. This is one of those reports that can be read in different ways and specialists have done just that. Speciality Food contrast the responses of the NFU and Organic Farmers and Growers. Now these two bodies may have very different views on many issues but it might have been expected that on the issue of British food standards and trade they would have been at one. Instead NFU president, Minette Batters, welcomed the report for its efforts to ‘reconcile the complexities and tensions inherent in government trade policy’ and for setting out ‘a bold vision to manage those tensions’. By contrast, Roger Kerr, chief executive of Organic Farmers and Growers condemned the report as ‘merely a fig leaf for the UK government to hide behind’. In a letter to Speciality Food, he said, ‘The UK’s agricultural industry faces being eviscerated by a lack of meaningful support and risks being left increasingly vulnerable to the whims of an unstable, imbalanced world food market.’

The TAC Vision

‘The UK has an ambitious trade policy which contributes to a global farming and food system that is fair and trusted by all its participants, including farmers, businesses and citizens, from source to consumption. Our food is safe, healthy, affordable, produced in a way which does not harm the planet, respects the dignity of animals and provides proper reward for those involved.’

So what’s going on?  Well one answer is in the careful wording used in the report. Let me show this with one quote about the need for the Government to develop a bold, ambitious agri-food trade strategy. The words I have emboldened are the important ones:

‘…an approach to imports which would align with its overall approach to trade liberalisation and seek to lower its tariffs and quotas to zero within trade agreements over a reasonable time period. …contingent on imports meeting the high standards of food production expected from UK producers. It would be dynamic, recognising the interplay between general trade policy, the provisions of specific free trade agreements and the success of UK advocacy for animal welfare, environmental and ethical standards in international fora.’

A ‘reasonable time period’ implies a fluidity that might or might not deliver in short order what those 2.6 million people wanted, so too the word ‘dynamic’ has a certain slipperiness about it. Not that the Commission is anything other than explicit as to why it has chosen this wording (again I have imposed my own emphasis):

‘We know that we should be practical and recognise that the UK government is currently continuing negotiating a number of free trade agreements (FTAs) with countries such as the USA, Australia and New Zealand. There would be challenges resulting from changing this approach in the immediate short-term. Our recommendation is a strategic aspiration for UK trade policy in the medium and longer term.’ 

In other words we might get those higher standards within future trade agreements but not necessarily for these early agreements which, of course, includes the USA. Scarcely surprising then that Vicki Hird of Sustain, and a member of our Expert Panel, welcomed the emphasis on protecting standards and the need for strong impact assessments of possible trade deals, but says the report prioritises trade liberalisation over other considerations.

It is quite likely that media attention will escalate as and when the Government responds to the report. It’s a long report and has 22 recommendations which you can see at:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/trade-and-agriculture-commission-tac/trade-and-agriculture-commission-final-report-executive-summary

How should the meat food chain be regulated?

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

It has become customary for critics of the UK food system to attack the weakness and fragmentation of regulatory arrangements: too many government departments with inadequately demarcated responsibilities, compounded by differences between different parts of the union and the weakness of local government. The usual standard-bearers for this critique might be termed the ‘RRs’ = the ‘resilience radicals’ or even, some might argue, ‘revolutionaries’. For the RRs, resilience is taken to include, amongst other things, a fundamental shift to agro-ecological or organic farming systems, a much more plant-based diet, shorter local food chains, and a decentralised regulatory or governance system that really is first and foremost about nutrition and health. Such radicalism is not new but certainly has gathered pace in the context of COVID, Brexit and the National Food Strategy. But it is not only those who favour sweeping change across the food system as a whole who are voicing concerns. In February, three leading meat trade bodies – the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS), the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) and the British Poultry Council (BPC) – produced a joint report on how food chains are regulated: Food Chain Oversight: An Integrated Model. In many ways their verdict is just as damning as that of the RRs:

‘The UK’s food chain is overseen by a number of different agencies, bodies, authorities and organisations: FSA, DEFRA, PHE, TS, RPA, LA, VMD, Port Health, APHA, etc. No one ‘agency’ has overall responsibility across the whole food chain from farm to port. This approach leads to duplicative bureaucracy, inefficiencies in delivery, confused intelligence gathering, and a decoupling of the food chain resulting in an increased risk of food fraud, hampering enforcement and a waste of resource.’

‘The overlap between the differing agencies involved in the delivering of consumer protective measures along with animal welfare controls provides significant opportunity for streamlining of process and a more joined-up approach to policy formation and delivery. The food chain is fundamentally linked from the point of production to the point of consumption therefore it is entirely logical that the supervision, oversight, enforcement, control, audit and regulation of this production chain should be linked and delivered as one over-arching body.’

 The co-author of the report, Jason Aldiss, holds out the prospect of:

‘… benefits for all, from producers to consumers. Lower costs, lower environmental impacts and a better, more appropriate use of resources resulting in the UK having a world-class regulatory body, fit for purpose and helping drive the country forward in our new post EU trading market.’

 https://meatmanagement.com/meat-trade-bodies-offer-up-changes-to-food-chain-regulation/

As someone with limited experience of the details of the meat processing sector, the specific points that lie beneath the headlines are of considerable interest. For example, the report highlights the lack of join up in the food inspection regime with related inefficiencies of resource use and duplication of effort. Although the report does not spell it out, I assume the authors had in mind the combined efforts of environmental health officers, trading standards officers, official veterinarians, meat hygiene inspectors, food examiners, and port health officers. There may well be others I’m not aware of. The report suggests that instead:

 ‘multi-functioning inspectors should deliver a wide range of inspection processes at each input into the food chain and operate from one central command unit sharing knowledge, intelligence, data and good practice. The current regime operates in closed silos distinct and separate from each other…’

The report also highlights how the current inspection processes are highly manual relying on ‘out-dated and old-fashioned methodologies’, which do not reflect today’s food safety risk factors. It all seems very clear, but when I read a report like this, clearly authoritative but also from a particular perspective (these two things are not necessarily contradictory but need to be kept in mind), I often turn to the academic literature for another view. In this case I stumbled across a paper with a characteristic academic title: ‘Practices of attention, possibilities for care: Making situations matter in food safety inspection’. Written by Stephanie Lavau and Nick Bingham (Sociological Review, 65, pp20-35, July 2017), it takes a rather different approach. As the authors explain, they ‘followed the work of inspection from farm to fork, passing through places such as farms, livestock markets, slaughterhouses, processing factories, cold stores, air and sea ports, restaurants, retail outlets, and food testing laboratories. Over a period of two years and across twenty sites, we work shadowed inspectors with responsibility for delivering official controls of food in the UK.’ They found inspectors felt constrained and troubled by the regulatory changes and streamlining already underway, with some inspectors feeling that their particular expertise was already stretched too thinly across different aspects of food businesses: ‘Amid such rapid and profound change, our concern is that something important about the practices of food safety inspection is in danger of being lost, with very real consequences for the quality of its outcomes in making complex and potentially lethal situations matter.’

So, we have two very different takes on regulation in the meat sector, one from the vantage point of meat processors, the other from inspectors, albeit filtered through the lens of academic sociology.  Neither position is directly related to COVID but one obvious lesson from COVID has been a heightening of both surveillance and risk as important societal issues. My sense is that, although at one level, regulation and inspection in the meat sector seems a highly technical issue, there are real issues to grapple with here and they are important if we are to have efficient and profitable food businesses alongside consumer confidence in both the safety of food and high animal welfare standards. ‘Building back better’ in the food sector needs some of the zeal of the RRs alongside the practical insights of industry itself, leavened with academic insights.

A promising career in…

 

By Tim Wilkinson

In Sky television’s humorous political thriller Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, while on a dinner date the protagonist Jack Ryan describes himself as being in ‘Supply Chain Logistics’. This is cover for his real job as a CIA analyst and anti-terrorist operative. It reminds me of the moment in HBO’s Sopranos, where gangster Tony Soprano answers a question about the nature of his job by saying: ‘I’m in the waste management business’. These comments are both intended as funny moments in the shows – with the joke (if we can call it that) being that a mundane sounding job title conceals something thrilling and illicit. ‘Supply Chain Logistician’ and ‘Waste Management’, are both stereotypes of jobs too banal to warrant further remark and are used to discourage further questions. But given the interest in the food supply chain and food waste over the last year, one can easily imagine a parallel universe. One in which a Supply Chain Logistician or Food Waste Manager are at a party and feel the need to pretend they have another job (a Video Game Designer or Ski Instructor, perhaps) – to avoid a throng of excited guests asking one hundred and one questions about how the food supply chain really works.

I have been collecting lots of diagrams of the food system and food supply chain this month. I’ve been looking at similarities and differences in how the system and supply chain are represented. Some diagrams are very simple and others are very complex. While there are often similarities, there are also lots of differences too; particularly in the categories used to express stages of the supply chain or elements of the system. It’s all pretty complicated. I’ve been thinking about why that is. Here’s a list of features of the food system that make it hard to understand:

  • Scale: the food system is local, regional, national, international, global
  • Multiplicity: the ‘food system’ is not really one system, but multiple semi-independent systems that interact and feedback to each other
  • Inter-connectivity: there are feedback loops, connections and interactions between food supply chain stages (e.g. manufacturing, retail), but also with broader, and more diffuse social, cultural and political domains
  • Specificity: the factors influencing the system are different depending on what type of food product we are talking about

Having a better understanding of why I’ve found it hard to get my head around the broader food system, I’ve been focusing on the specific food supply chain. In particular, I’ve been learning more about how the middle of the food supply chain works. One nuance I would like to highlight is the distinction between primary and secondary processing, and primary and secondary manufacturing. I found this is in Rachel Ward’s and Andy Kerridge’s 2018 report for the Global Food Security Information Architecture Scoping Project Report (ukri.org) (see Annex 2, p.10). The distinction between ‘processing’ and ‘manufacturing’ in the supply chain is common in representations of the food supply chain, but the sub-division these two processes into two stages provides a more nuanced image. I’ll use the example of a cabbage here to illustrate the distinction. Primary processing doesn’t change the cabbage, but makes it edible by washing or packaging. Secondary processing involves basic changes to the cabbage to make it into an ingredient (e.g. grating a cabbage). Primary manufacturing applies more complex processes to the cabbage, like cooking or fermentation. Secondary manufacturing is making more complex food from multiple ingredients, including cabbage (e.g. adding cabbage to a pie). I found these distinctions very useful as they sub-divide processes in the middle of the food supply chain. Better understanding of what happens to food after it has left the farm and before it is purchased by a consumer is really important.

I will write more about the ‘hidden middle’ of the food supply chain in future bulletins. But for this month, I wanted to also highlight news on anti-food-waste apps. A Guardian article provides a summary: Millions sign up to anti-food-waste apps to share their unused produce | Environment | The Guardian. It’s often said that a third of all food is wasted and the potential for digital solutions is encouraging. I found these an interesting example of consumer to consumer exchange of food. This adds a further stage to the food supply chain beyond the initial consumer purchasing it from a retailer. Like producers selling direct to consumers, the pandemic has created new connections between parts of the supply chain. Given levels of food bank use and food poverty, anything that can be done to limit waste is valuable. I want to learn more about how these apps work, how food safety is managed and personal safety is protected during pick-ups.

As a final note, I would like to encourage any Supply Chain Logisticians, who might find themselves at a post-Covid party, to be themselves. Don’t pretend to be a Video Game Designer or Ski Instructor, but rather, please answer all those questions about how the food supply chain really works.

Government support for food wholesalers

 

By Tim Wilkinson

We have previously outlined some of the challenges faced by wholesalers as a consequence of the pandemic. Although wholesale businesses were not legally forced to close, they have been adversely affected. The closure of the food service industry dramatically reduced some wholesaler’s customer supply needs. However, with customers like hospitals, care homes and schools many wholesalers could not close entirely, without letting down these important services. Where wholesaler businesses have remained open but worked at reduced capacity, this has depleted cash reserves. While wholesale businesses were, like all businesses, eligible for the furlough scheme, this did not account for overheads such as warehousing or distribution costs. In addition to this, the closure of schools at short notice in January 2021 had costs for wholesalers, who were left with excess stock, additional storage costs and wastage. In February 2021 the Federation of Wholesale Distributors launched a petition [1] requesting the government provide bespoke financial support for the sector.

But targeted support was not granted in the government’s budget on 3rd March. Unlike other businesses in the food system whose financial support was extended in the budget, wholesalers were not given sector specific funding. Business rates relief was extended for eligible businesses in retail, hospitality and leisure – but having been excluded from previous support, wholesalers were not able to access the scheme extended by the budget. Neither were wholesalers eligible for the Restart Fund (which supports hospitals, hotels, gyms and personal care businesses). In early March, it was unclear whether wholesalers would be eligible to apply for local authority grants. These are non-sector specific funds available for all businesses to apply for and allocated on a discretionary basis by the local authority. The Federation of Wholesale Distributors pledged to help its members access this funding.

In mid-March there was news that wholesalers were accessing local authority funding. For instance, a London-based food wholesaler successfully secured half a million pounds of local authority grant funding. However, Fairway Foodservice CEO Chris Binge, quoted in The Grocer said, ‘The general amount a member in England has received is under £10k. There is no consistency in any of it. Different local authorities apply different criteria; some say “no”, one member was awarded £70 per day’. So similar businesses in different local authorities may end up with different fates. While providing much needed support, this discretionary funding did not give targeted sectoral support.

In late March, things changed dramatically. A new £1.5bn business rates relief fund was announced, and a ‘food wholesaler’ was referenced as an example of a potential applicant. This new package is available for all businesses outside retail, hospitality and leisure sectors who have been affected by Covid. But the use of food wholesalers as an example of a business who could receive support is promising for the wholesale sector. The pot will be distributed to ‘sectors that suffered the most economically, rather than on the basis of falls in property values, ensuring the support is provided to businesses in England in the fastest and fairest way possible’ (Gov.UK source). The Federation of Wholesale Distributors has welcomed this news. In the March budget it looked as if wholesalers might remain part of the ‘hidden middle’ of the food supply chain, but the new business rates relief appears to acknowledge the ways the impacts of the pandemic have reverberated down the supply chain.

 

For more information on the wholesale experience over the last year and the sector’s outlook, I found this analysis by The Grocer interesting.

 

[1] I’m signposting this petition for information; it is not an endorsement of it.

The South West Farm Survey 2020

 

By Tim Wilkinson

The fourth Centre for Rural Policy Research South West Farm Survey went out in the post in October 2020 and we have a great set of responses to process and analyse. Having run a farmer survey for the South West in 2006, 2010 and 2016, we are excited to see how the data compares with previous years. As in preceding years, the survey was sent to land managers in Cornwall, Dorset, Devon, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Wiltshire and the Isles of Scilly. This is a broadly defined South West, which was initially drawn from New Labour’s South West region (abolished in 2009) and maps onto the Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics (NUTS) region for the South West (UK).

The 2020 survey includes a wide range of questions: about the farm business and how it has changed, labour, use of technology, attitudes towards agriculture, succession plans and much, much more. Many of the survey questions are repeated (or evolved) from those asked in previous years so we can track trends and build a longitudinal data set; others are designed in response to current issues, this time, including Covid impacts, Brexit and Environmental Land Management.

We originally planned to launch the survey in March 2020, but delayed for obvious reasons. We sent out 4000 questionnaires in late October 2020 and reminders in early December. We have had 1110 returned – an incredible 28% response rate (a huge thank you to everyone who took part!). The data is currently being entered and processed. With 41 questions in each individual survey, there are well over 45,000 answers to record – a monumental job! We will be starting the analysis of the data in April and are looking forward to sharing results from the survey soon.

So has diet changed as a result of COVID-19?

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

No-one is in any doubt that the Pandemic has for many people changed where they eat, especially during the lockdowns, with home cooking and takeaways flourishing at the expense of eating out. But the question of what people are eating is more complex. Headline data from Kantar published by the AHDB earlier this month compared Christmas food purchasing in the UK for 2020 with previous pre-pandemic Christmas sales.[1] Grocery sales were up by 11.7% on the previous year, compared to a mere 0.2% increase between 2018 and 2019. The largest year on year increase over the last decade was 6.1% between 2011 and 2012. Not surprisingly, Online was the big Christmas 2020 grocery winner and consumers shopped around less, continuing a trend seen throughout 2020.

What is interesting about these figures is that the closure of hospitality is likely to be less distorting of consumer trends at Christmas than at any other time of the year. Yes, of course, hospitality venues would normally boom in the run-up to Christmas and in the New Year and some, of course, do open for Christmas Day itself. Moreover prior to COVID there had been a sharp increase in eating out on Christmas day, but from a low base, estimated in The Caterer at just 3% of the population in 2017.[2]  So most people home-cater for Christmas day itself. Keep in mind that 11.7% overall sales increase figure as we turn to particular categories of growth between the festive seasons of 2019 and 2020:

 

 

[We are grateful to the AHDB for permission to reproduce the above graphics]

 

So dairy products, beef and pork significantly outstripped the overall trend. Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, accompanying vegetables did not grow at the same rate with volume sales increases of 14% for carrots, 5.1% for parsnips and 7.2% for sprouts.[3]  So is the long term trend towards less meat being bucked by the pandemic? Well it’s too soon to say and data for one Christmas certainly do not make a trend; and data are still emerging on diet change and will continue to do so. This piece is not an attempt to provide any definitive answers but I turn now to two pieces of independent academic research recently covered for some further indicators around the ‘what’ question.

The first looks at whether individuals and families in the UK have changed their food choice motivations over lockdown and was based on 248 respondents to an online survey.[4] The authors, Sarah Snuggs and Sophie McGregor, caution that the results are preliminary and the sample was small. Respondents were asked to reflect on their food goals and motivations before lockdown and in the Summer 2020 looking at the relative importance of Health, Mood, Convenience, Sensory Appeal, Natural Content, Price, Weight, Control, Familiarity, and Ethical Concern:

Results indicated that the sample placed more importance on health, weight control and mood when choosing their food after lockdown than they had before, and less importance on familiarity. A number of sub-groups were identified who may be particularly vulnerable to food-related challenges in future lockdowns including younger adults, parents and carers of children, those self-isolating and individuals who do not live within close proximity to food shops.

Some of these findings need to be treated with caution. For example, as the authors point out, a concern with health may be caused by concern about weight gain rather than healthy eating per se. They also point to some fascinating differences between their sub-samples. Younger people changed more than older people with 18-26 year olds placing increasing emphasis on health, price, weight control and natural content and less on convenience and familiarity. The authors speculate that this this might be encouraging for improved health behaviours going forward. But on the other hand,

(T)hey might reflect the more negative point that young people are more likely to have become unemployed or furloughed than older individuals leaving them with more time to consider their food choices, but also more pressure to keep costs down.

In short, there is a lot we don’t know, and of course asking people about what motivates their food choices at best offers only a proxy for my ‘what’ question.  After all, when someone says I am eating more healthily we don’t know for sure what that means. As in any research, understanding the precise methods adopted in social science research is important. So when we come to our next paper, superficially there seems to be an immediate contrast with the Snuggs and McGregor work.  But the devil is in the detail of the aims and methods used (hence, of course, the need for multiple methods and sources for conclusive analysis of this topic). Buckland et al. offer interesting data on unhealthy eating during the pandemic.[5]

The researchers set out to increase understanding of the risk of overeating during lockdown period. Again they adopted an online survey which gave them 588 responses to analyse, 485 were from the UK and 219 from non-UK countries. The study aims were to:

  1. Assess reported changes to food intake (changes to overall amount eaten and for High Energy Dense sweet and savoury foods) during the first COVID-19 lockdown.
  2. Identify the eating behaviour traits that increase susceptibility to increased intake of HED (High Energy Dense) sweet and savoury foods.
  3. Explore whether adopting coping strategies linked with reduced distress (active coping, acceptance and positive reframing) would moderate the relationship between eating behaviour traits and changes to food intake.

48% of the sample reported increased food intake. But it is a complex story. For example, while respondents were more likely to report increased snack intake than increased meal intake, there was an increase in fruit and vegetable intake. Mean changes to HED sweet and savoury foods were low but there was a high degree of variation and 22-26% did report increasing consumption of HED sweet and savoury foods.

This is a complex paper so do look at the full version if you want to get to grips with the detail.  The authors are psychologists with a particular interest in craving and its control. Let me finish with their own conclusions to the paper:

In conclusion, within a sample of mostly white, educated, not low income, and not home schooling participants, this study identified the role of craving control as an important predictor of increased HED sweet and savoury food intake in response to the UK COVID-19 lockdown. The study also showed that the increased HED sweet food intake reported in people scoring low in craving control was reduced in people who adopted an acceptance coping strategies. Strategies that promote improved craving control and acceptance coping strategies should be further investigated as targets for future interventions to promote controlled food intake during viral lockdowns.   

 

[1] https://ahdb.org.uk/news/consumer-insight-beef-and-dairy-winners-this-christmas

[2] https://www.thecaterer.com/news/restaurant/number-of-people-eating-out-on-christmas-day-set-to-treble

[3] https://ahdb.org.uk/news/consumer-insight-produce-and-potatoes-benefit-from-smaller-christmas-celebrations

[4] Snuggs, S and McGregor, S. (2021) Food & meal decision making in lockdown: How and who has Covid-19 affected? Food Quality and Preference, 89, 104145

[5] Buckland, N.J. Swinnerton, L.F. Kwok Ng, Price, M. Wilkinson, L.L. Myers, A. Dalton, M. (2021) Susceptibility to increased high energy dense sweet and savoury food intake in response to the COVID-19 lockdown: the role of craving control and acceptance coping strategies, Appetite, 158, 105017.

 

How can we understand the complexity of the food system?

Spaghetti Junction UK

 

By Tim Wilkinson

I don’t understand how the food system works. That might sound like an odd thing to say from someone working on this project. But two unconnected things have hit this home recently.

First, the plight of wholesalers who have been treated differently in terms of government support and have not been able to access the same funding as retail and hospitality. Reports of millions of pounds worth of stock being left in warehouses after school closures in January 2021, and of wholesalers staying open to supply a reduced customer base of care homes, prisons and schools while suffering severe financial losses, made me realise how little I really understand about how food moves from food wholesalers to shops. This ‘hidden’ part of the food system is clearly critical; and while I have an idea of warehouses and distribution networks, in my mind it is a Lego version of all of that.

Second, I’ve been looking at industry classifications for types of food businesses for a survey we plan to run later this year. The variety of food business is absolutely huge. We have been using Standard Industry Classifications to help identify food businesses and to structure a sample. These are categories with fun, technical titles like ‘Retail sale in non-specialised stores with food, beverages or tobacco predominating’. Based on our search terms, there were approximately 45,000 food business contacts available. The list of businesses was fascinating. It included familiar business types like butchers, green grocers and cafes and restaurants, but also ‘makers of brewing equipment’, ‘bacon curers’ and ‘chocolate fountain’ suppliers. I’ve thought a lot about how Covid has impacted food businesses over the last 9 months but quickly realised I didn’t appreciate the full range of businesses involved.

So to help me better understand the food system, I’ve been thinking about how I see it at the moment. My instinct is to look at the food system as a linear sequence of steps. If you asked me to explain the food system to a five year old, I would say something like this: plants and animals are grown by farmers (and other food producers), they are sent to food processors who clean them up and begin turning plants and animals into something you can eat, from the processor food goes to food manufacturers who combine ingredients to make a food product, it is packaged and stored, then it is sold by wholesalers, and distributed to retail and hospitality businesses who sell the stuff.

But even aside from differences in the supply chain between food sectors, the reality is far more complex. Almost to the point where I lose the sense of it being a food system that is organised in a consistent way. While I might wish to see separate stages in the supply chain (producers, processors etc.), these can be collapsed – for instance by a farmer who grows, processes, manufactures and sells a product from the farm. Even where there are definitive and separate supply chain stages, there are networks of brokers and agents, importers and exporters, technical support, consultants and manufacturers of equipment who work in between these so-called stages and blur boundaries between them. Furthermore, any linear understanding of food being passed along a chain misses the dialogue between businesses on the specification of products, branding and marketing, and regulatory frameworks that guide and assure quality and safety. I’m sure there are many other reasons why my linear view is inadequate too.

In March last year, the idea of the ‘just in time’ food system was much talked about; supermarket ordering algorithms designed to keep shelves stocked with food (and fresh food) were affected by spikes in demand and required human intervention to set them straight. It feels a little bit too easy to talk about the ‘just in time’ food system in one phrase – it gives me the sense that I understand more than I do. So over the next few weeks I want to learn more about how food moves through supply chains, in particular from manufacturer to the supermarket shelves. How do systems of warehousing, shipping, haulage and transportation really work and what differences are there between sectors? How does demand from retail translate ‘back’ along the supply chain – how much stock do manufacturers make in advance? Why aren’t supply chains as visible as farms and retail in the public eye?

How can we ‘build back better’ and what’s the role of plant-based diets?

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

In July 2020, the UK Global Food Security Programme and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council hosted a workshop with a range of stakeholders from across the UK food system. The workshop sought to determine the research and innovation needs and opportunities around ‘building back better’ through Covid, and how this might enhance the resilience of the UK food system to future shocks. I was one of the 54 on-line attendees, as were Expert Panel members Barbra Bray and Caroline Drummond. A report summarising the discussion is now available: Building back better for increased resilience of the UK food system to future shocks (2020). Workshop Report.

The Executive Summary highlighted the key findings as follows:

  • From an agricultural perspective, research into improving the UK’s soil health is crucial, alongside the development of enhanced climate models. Measures to address the UK’s ageing farmer base are also identified as important.
  • Local food production is a useful supplement to globalised supply and demand, alongside improved data sharing within supply chains and a greater ability of producers and manufacturers to ‘re-pivot’ their activities in a disruption scenario.
  • Expansion of plant-based protein and fruit and vegetable production in the UK through enhanced inter- and intra-crop species diversification is important, not only to reduce risk from disruption to supply but also to better ensure the UK can meet its nutritional needs in any future disruption scenario.
  • Understand the complex range of factors influencing nutrient uptake and consumer dietary choices and the potential for enhancing the nutritional value of foods. This is alongside the role of diet in COVID-19 related deaths and an underpinning need to improve overall dietary health.
  • At a supply chain level, there is a need to identify ways to buffer just-in-time systems against food shortages. Solutions should focus on adaptability, for example, by utilising emerging technologies, such as digital twins, which can help different supply chain actors react to a disruption in concert rather than isolation.
  • In order to facilitate a more resilient UK food system, stakeholders are clear that research and innovation needs to be interdisciplinary and international and that applied research must be adequately funded.
  • It is essential that any research and development opportunities are systemic. If implemented in a piecemeal fashion, resilience will not necessarily ensure that food is affordable, accessible, safe, healthy and produced in a way that underpins, and benefits from, a thriving natural environment. These areas must therefore be consciously enshrined in designs for food system resilience.

 

The prominence given to dietary change and plant-based foods is unsurprising, but I was interested to think about this in the context of the findings of the Peoples’ Climate Vote published on the 26th January 2021.

The People’s Climate Vote was based on 1.2 million respondents (although only 35% answered the policy questions I refer to below), spanning 50 countries, including the UK, and covering 56% of the world’s population. The survey identified six policy areas (energy, economy, transportation, farms and food, protecting people, and nature) each with three sub-options – giving a total of 18 policy possibilities. On average, respondents backed eight out of the 18 climate policies, and 97% supported at least one policy. The most popular of the 18 policy options, supported by 54% of respondents, was to conserve forests and land, while the least popular (35%) was the promotion of plant based diets. Of course, most reading this will immediately point to the fact that to conserve land requires dietary change: True! And others might suggest that the results would be different in countries such as the UK: possibly, but plant based diets did not make it in the top ten policy option preferences for high income countries, including the UK (there is no data for individual countries presented in the report).

What do I conclude from this? Well two things to stimulate thought and perhaps some debate:

  1. Dietary choice is deep wired in people’s identity and selfhood, and even events as grave as the climate change emergency will not shift people’s thinking on food easily or quickly.
  2. Those promoting a very rapid transition in agriculture to organic or, so-called, agro-ecological systems, predicate their arguments on a significant reduction in animal-based food.

The tensions between these two observations are obvious. What is less clear is how such tensions are resolved. Maybe the forthcoming National Food Strategy will give some clear guidance on the balance between regulatory, market and behaviour changes that might be needed to secure both food and environmental security. One thing clear to me is that farming is largely in responsive mode in this debate. Farmers have the skills to manage the land and produce commodities, but precisely which commodities, and at what volume, is inevitably an outcome of markets and regulation. In other words, to end on a provocative note, promoting a wholesale transition to organic farming in advance of a clear sense of how food markets might change, seems rather curious. Farmers will respond to market and policy signals but what these will be, as we attempt to build back a better food system post-COVID, it’s too early to say. This is not to suggest that farmers and other players in the food system are merely passive. They are also players in the development of markets and regulations.

The Footballer and Food

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

I don’t often watch football. I used to enjoy playing but that was many years ago and somehow I just much prefer watching rugby these days, maybe because that’s a sport I never did play.  Be that as it may, on Sunday evening I did tune into BBC 1 and watch Manchester United take on Liverpool in the fourth round of the FA Cup.  And I was prompted to do so in part because I wanted to see Marcus Rashford MBE.  He did not disappoint, scoring one goal and making another with a superb pass. He is some player for sure. He is also perhaps the most prominent celebrity name in the Covid food story, leading fund raising efforts to support children in poverty with food; and at the same time taking on the Government over free school meals, most recently successfully challenging the quality of some food parcels.  In this respect, Rashford is following in the footsteps of other celebrities, notably Jamie Oliver who, as long ago as 2006, highlighted quality issues with regard to school canteens.  Back then, it was the Compass Group under fire and it so happens that the miscreant highlighted by Rashford over food parcels was Chartwells, a subsidiary of Compass.  Compass Group plc may not be a well-known name but they are a FTSE 100 company and a global player in catering.  As the Guardian points out:

Catering services are typically fragmented between many small providers, but Compass has profited from being one of the few catering companies with global scale and 550,000 employees. … The pandemic has also dented Compass’s profits as canteens in offices, hospitals and military bases have remained shut around the world. Compass’s earnings before tax fell by 85% in the year to 30 September 2020 to £210m.’[1]

There can be no doubt that the food parcel that caused such offence was sub-standard – the photograph went viral and does not need reproducing here – but I have just a little sympathy for companies, big or small, trying to adapt to fast changing policy demands.

I remember some academic colleagues back at the start of the pandemic writing to the Prime Minister suggesting that food rationing should be introduced, which I interpreted as headline- grabbing shorthand for more controls and a clear strategic policy within the food system. To me, and I would welcome feedback on this, the Marcus Rashford story highlights a failure of strategy within the inevitable policy intervention in the food system during this crisis.  We have a situation where Government has intervened massively in the economy to an extent unprecedented since the Second World War, but neither the institutional architecture nor the nature of the policy deliberation process comes anywhere near what was put in place around the food system in 1940.  And it was a very sophisticated, perhaps overly bureaucratic, set of interventions which certainly involved the farming and food industries directly in shaping and implementing policy.

I can’t resist just finishing on a footballing note. The football league was, of course, suspended from 1940 to 1945 but in the first season of its resumption in 1946/47 the champions were none other Liverpool and the runners up Manchester United!  Plus ça change!

 

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/jan/12/school-dinners-row-shines-light-on-role-of-catering-firms-chartwells-compass

 

Covid Food Business Barometer – summary of results from a short survey in late 2020

 

By Tim Wilkinson and Matt Lobley

We have been casting our minds back to November 2020. It feels like a long time ago now. A lot has changed; and while analysing some data we collected at the end of last year, we have been thinking about just how much. This week we are presenting some headline results from our Covid Food Business Barometer survey. We think the results help remind us that although the business outlook is currently gloomy, some businesses last year were feeling well adapted to working within the Covid restrictions and were confident about their future.

 

Should We Run a Survey?

In the end, we ran a short survey at the end of November last year for food businesses. But we were in two minds about whether to run it at all. We were worried that it might not be an appropriate time to be doing research given the challenges that food businesses were facing. We had designed a longer survey that was due to launch just as Lockdown 2 was announced. After much deliberation and consultation we decided to redesign a shorter survey – to minimise the time it would take businesses to respond. The survey was open for two weeks from 27th November to 12 Dec 2020. This period ran across the lifting of Lockdown 2 restrictions on 2nd December 2020 and into revised tiered restrictions. We received 87 responses, to a 12-question survey, which took respondents about 6 minutes to complete. We circulated the survey online via industry mailing lists and on Twitter (we had few responses from Twitter). About two thirds of responses came on the 30th November and 1st December – just before Lockdown 2 was lifted.

We think that the pressures on businesses and changing lockdown restrictions probably affected response rates, however we are pleased to have taken a snapshot of how some businesses were doing during this crisis. Due to the small sample size, the results should not be taken as representative of all food businesses. Indeed, the sample is quite likely to be biased towards businesses who felt they were well adapted to working within Covid restrictions and who were not facing major challenges. Nevertheless, the results tell an interesting story about how businesses who responded to the survey were feeling late last year. The results also give a sense of the scale of economic impacts that Covid has had on businesses.

Businesses who responded to the survey were from a wide range of food sectors and stages of the supply chain. We had responses from Bakery (11%), Meat (11%), Beverages (11%), Ready to Eat Meals (10%), Technical Services (7%), Consultancy Services (6%), Confectionary (5%), Fruit and Vegetables (5%, Grain and Starch (5%) and several more. The Fish and Seafood (3%) sector was not well represented in the sample so the results do not tell us much about that sector. In terms of supply chain stages, we had responses from food processing (11%), food manufacture (22%), wholesale and distribution (17%), import and export (11%), retail (11%), hospitality and food service (9%), consultancy services (11%). No one sector or supply chain stage seemed to be strongly over represented.

 

Feeling Well Adapted and Positive About 2021

Most businesses (77%) which responded to the survey were fully open and trading, but some were only partly open (20%), particularly in hospitality and food service, retail and manufacture. Just 2% of respondents were from businesses that were closed. Most respondents (82%) said that they were facing challenges but coping, while 15% said they were doing well. Only 3% of respondents were facing major difficulties. Perhaps this bias towards businesses not facing major difficulties explains why 85% of businesses said they had adapted well to working within the Covid restrictions, and why 67% said they felt confident about the future of the business. This was a very positive message, which was reiterated by businesses who, overall, scored themselves as well prepared for Lockdown 2 and for future Covid related restrictions. On a scale of 1 to 10 (where 1 was not at all prepared and 10 was extremely prepared), the mean score for being prepared for Lockdown 2 was 7.5 and for preparedness for future restrictions the average score was  7.4. This high level of preparedness is reinforced by a small majority of respondents (54%) saying that Brexit was a bigger threat to the business than Covid-19. We think that in late 2020, contingency planning may have shifted from ‘Covid’ to ‘Brexit’, with the acute uncertainties around the deal at that time. For some businesses there may have been a sense in which they were as prepared for Covid as they could be, and that the more pressing issue was how to prepare for Brexit.

 

Table 1. Results of Attitudinal Questions   

Disagree Neither Agree
I think the business has adapted well to the challenges of working within Covid restrictions 9% 6% 85%
I am feeling confident about the future of the business 9% 23% 67%
Brexit poses a bigger threat to our business than Covid-19 22% 24% 54%

 Source: CRPR Food Business Barometer Survey

 

We think that these results show how positive and well adapted some businesses were feeling late last year. As we’ve said, these results aren’t representative of all food businesses and this was a small sample, but nevertheless it shows how some food businesses have been able to adapt to meet the challenges of new ways of working in the pandemic. We do wonder whether this positive outlook was coloured by the imminent lifting of the Lockdown 2 restrictions and perhaps a wider societal hope that the pandemic would abate in early 2021. Furthermore, November 2020 saw the US presidential elections outcome, financial markets recovering and, when we ran the survey, it was far enough away from Christmas that it was still something to look forward to. We don’t want to under emphasise the pressures and challenges that food businesses face – or the work they have put into adapting to Covid, but our results indicate that some businesses do have moments of positivity and confidence. With the benefit of hindsight, we think it’s likely that the last minute announcements of tier changes over Christmas and subsequent Lockdown 3 will have changed the business mood. It certainly feels that way and elsewhere in this bulletin Michael Winter highlights some of the recent pressures facing the wholesale sector.  But what we can learn from these results is that, while there are serious business challenges, there is also adaptation and confidence. The swing from feeling prepared to feeling unprepared can be very quick, but we shouldn’t forget the times when businesses feel able to cope with the rapidly changing world. It’s not easy to get prepared or to adapt. It’s an achievement and should be acknowledged.

 

Economic Impacts

We asked several questions about how sales volume, turnover and profit have changed; how much they had changed over last six months (compared to pre-Covid) and how much they were expected to change over the next six months (compared to the last six months) on a scale from -100% to +100%. Please note that below we are only presenting the raw means, which includes outliers. On average sales volume (-20%) and turnover (-21%) were down about a fifth over the last six months, with an expected increase in both of 6% over the next six months. Profits were down, on average, by 30% with little change expected in the next six months. These averages won’t tell an accurate story for particular sectors; they are just an average across the whole sample. But we can see in our analysis, for instance, that a large proportion of those businesses whose sales volumes reduced the most (from -100% to -40%) were in hospitality and food service, and those whose sales volumes increased the most (from 0 to +80% increase) comprised of a large proportion of food manufacturing business. Covid has had an uneven impact on different sectors. But in the context of the overall figures for changes and expected changes in sales volumes, turnover and profit, the positive response to questions about adaptation, confidence and preparedness, are perhaps even more striking – given the likely consequences of these economic impacts on cash flow and savings.

 

Table 2. Results of Economic Impacts of Covid Questions  

How much have…changed in last 6 months compared to pre-Covid % (mean) How much do you expect…to change in the next 6 months compared to the last 6 months % (mean)
Sales volume -19.9 +5.8
Turnover -20.7 +5.6
Profit -29.6 -0.9

Source: CRPR Food Business Barometer Survey

 

Part of the reason for these economic impacts is business closure during lockdown and workforce issues, but it is also the costs of implementing Covid safe measures. Businesses responding to our survey experienced an average 10% increase in operating costs due to implementing Covid safe measures and a reduction in profit of 7%. We wonder what proportion of the increased operating costs are now fixed costs built into the system, and what proportion will be ongoing.

 

Where Next?

We know that the business attitudes and perceptions about the future will have been revised with the announcement of Lockdown 3 and the impact that changes to Christmas restrictions had on customer demand for some businesses, so we are planning the launch of a follow up survey in March. While the mood and outlook feel very gloomy at the moment, it remains possible that we may move quickly back to something more positive later in the year – or not, as the case may be. In this dynamic and uncertain situation it is easy to start to think that the last year has had little positive in it. But we think that the results of our short survey show the adaptability of businesses and their resilience in seeing a future for their businesses – despite the heavy economic burdens that the pandemic has placed on them.

 

A Note on Percentages Stated

In this blog we have only reported headline findings; percentages listed may exclude categories where responses were small or in ‘other’ categories. For this reasons they may not sum to 100%. Percentage has also been rounded to the nearest whole number. For more information on the results, please contact .