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.

It’s not just about COVID: Food in the news

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

There has been a spate of press coverage in recent days about food related issues and not all are about COVID impacts. The prospects of a no-deal Brexit at the end of the transition period may well have a more severe impact on food supplies, certainly in the short-term, than the impact of COVID in March and April. How COVID and Brexit combine to serve up a cocktail of challenges is the theme of an article in the Sunday Times on the 18th October entitled ‘Jingling tills won’t solve a tricky midwinter for supermarkets’. The supermarkets are expected to ‘benefit’ from the new restrictions on the hospitality sector, and delivery slots are already filling up. The big four – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons – are reported to be preparing plans to extend hours, use virtual queueing apps and have awnings outside stores to give shelter to those queuing. On top of all this are the uncertainties associated with the end of the Brexit transition period. The Sunday Times piece speculates that ‘fear of border delays in the new year could spur shoppers to indulge in festive stockpiling, leaving supermarkets with empty shelves and warehouses’.

On a similar Brexit trade theme, the Financial Times reports on concerns that organic farmers in the UK may not be able to export to the EU after the Transition Period ends due to uncertainty around whether the EU will recognise the certification of UK goods with an organic label. The piece reports that UK exports worth up to £225m a year could be in peril and that EU businesses are already winding down orders from the UK as time for a trade deal runs out.

Returning to the COVID theme, the Guardian reports that major food companies have written to the Chancellor about the risk posed to food supplies to care homes, schools, hospitals and prisons as the loss of income associated with the decline of the hospitality sector has put some wholesalers at risk. The companies advocate more Government support for wholesalers. In contrast, an in-depth piece in the New Statesman claims that some wholesalers have benefitted unfairly from Government funding of food boxes for the vulnerable. Anoosh Chakelian in ‘Revealed: The £208m food box rip-off’ pulls no punches denouncing the poor nutritional quality of the contents of food boxes for the clinically extremely vulnerable and moreover claiming that the Government paid private contractors almost double the retail value for food parcels, through the £208 million contract. Kath Dalmeny, the chief executive of food and farming charity Sustain described the boxes as a ‘mixed picture of food quality’, and the scheme as ‘logistically impressive’ but ‘nutritionally questionable. The reference to Sustain took me scurrying off to the Sustain website where I found a challenging piece by Kath Dalmeny calling for ‘a public inquiry into the Covid-19 emergency food response, to ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes again’. She sets out 7 key questions:Why did so many people go hungry before and during the Covid-19 pandemic?

  1. Why has it been so hard for Government to recognise and relieve financial hardship for those most in need?
  2. Why was it so hard to ensure children from very low-income families got the food they needed?
  3. Why did Sustain have to resort to legal action to secure government action on child holiday hunger?
  4. Why don’t we treat meals on wheels services more seriously?
  5. How do we stop supermarket shelves from emptying ahead of impending shocks to our supply chains?
  6. Why was so much public money given to supermarkets and not local shops and suppliers?

For more details on the above see: https://www.sustainweb.org/blogs/jul20_covid19_food_insecurity_mustnt_happen_again/

In August’s Bulletin, I talked about the National Food Strategy, which clearly provides one of the more promising routes to address at least some of these questions. Of course, the origins of the NFS pre-date COVID and so does food poverty, and so we finish with the starting point of this piece that there are food issues which are not just about COVID. Let me give the final word to someone who has been in the news a good deal recently, the footballer Marcus Rashford who on the 15th October launched his petition calling for an end to child poverty writing as follows:

‘For too long this conversation has been delayed. Child food poverty in the UK is not a result of COVID-19. We must act with urgency to stabilise the households of our vulnerable children. In 2020, no child in the UK should be going to bed hungry, nor should they be sat in classrooms concerned about how their younger siblings are going to eat that day, or how they are going to access food come the holidays. The school holidays used to be a highlight of the year for children. Today, it is met with anxiety from those as young as 7-years old. Many have said that education is the most effective means of combating poverty. I do not disagree with this statement, but education is only effective when children can engage in learning. Right now, a generation who have already been penalised during this pandemic with lack of access to educational resources are now back in school struggling to concentrate due to worry and the sound of their rumbling stomachs. Whatever your feeling, opinion, or judgement, food poverty is never the child’s fault. Let’s protect our young. Let’s wrap arms around each other and stand together to say that this is unacceptable, that we are united in protecting our children. Today, millions of children are finding themselves in the most vulnerable of environments and are beginning to question what it really means to be British. I’m calling on you all today to help me prove to them that being British is something to be proud of.’

Baking for stress-relief during a pandemic

 

By Veronica White

I don’t know about you, but I was very happy when I heard that The Great British Bake Off was returning this Autumn. In this year of lockdowns and social distancing, there’s something incredibly comforting about watching the bakers in their ‘Covid bubble’, where there’s no fear of a (Hollywood) handshake.

It’s not just watching Bake Off that lets me escape. Since the start of the pandemic, I have found peace in baking. When the stress of writing my master’s dissertation or job applications was too much, I would take the evening off to bake. As Instagram was flooded with photos tagged #covidbaking and #quarantinebaking, it was clear I wasn’t the only one turning to baking as a way of distracting myself from reality.

Home baking soared during the UK’s initial COVID lockdown, as people looked for ways to fill new ‘spare-time’, deal with stress and connect with others on social media. When supermarkets struggled with the high demand for flour and yeast, bakers got creative – turning towards flour-less bakes and sourdough. It wasn’t just individuals who got in on the baking trend: chains such as Pret and Greggs released the recipes for their beloved bakes, while chefs and restaurants hosted ‘cook-alongs’ on Instagram. Feel free to leave us a comment letting us know what you’ve been baking!

A quick look at Google trends for some key search terms highlights a significant increase in interest at the beginning of lockdown, gradually falling off again in the summer months. Yet interest appears to be growing again, perhaps due to a combination of tightening COVID restrictions and Bake Off coming back to our screens.In her essay for The Correspondent, Emily Dreyfuss writes about how sharing pictures of our bakes on social media helps remind us ‘we’re all in this, whatever this is, together’. The importance of feeling a part of a community is also discussed by Easterbrook-Smith (2020), who suggests that in addition to providing sustenance and stress-relief, baking allows us to demonstrate our skills on social media and connect virtually with people when face-to-face contact is limited.

A few weeks ago, I started baking my own bread. It’s still far from perfect, but I quickly realised how much money I can save by baking my own loaves. Following the financial crisis in 2008, Italians began baking more bread and pizza at home, while here in the UK, home baking also increased. According to the AHDB, a ‘third of consumers have had some change to their household employment status’ because of COVID-19 and will, therefore, likely be looking for ways to save money on food. Their survey found that 72% of consumers are cooking from scratch more in an attempt to save money. Future research should look specifically at whether home baking is being used as a method of reducing shopping costs.

Whether I’m curled up on the couch watching Bake Off or baking banana bread in the kitchen, it’s easy to forget what’s going on in the world outside our living room. Over the last few months, baking has offered many of us a much-needed break, a creative outlet. Will this interest in home baking continue in a post-pandemic world? For the sake of our mental health and our wallets, I hope so.

COVID panic buying 2.0?

By Tim Wilkinson

With additional national restrictions, rising cases of Covid-19 and the prospect of a potential second lockdown, one has to wonder what the effect of additional restrictions might have on the food system.

Signs in the supermarket read “be considerate while shopping”. While such imperatives are now a familiar part of the retail messaging, in the last week the emphasis on customer behaviour has once again been in the news. Retailers have been urging customers not just to be considerate while shopping, but to refrain from so-called ‘panic buying’.  There have been reports of fears of panic buying and rumours of stockpiling in the last few days, but so far it seems the supermarket aisle scenes of March 2020 have not been repeated. I noticed that several online news outlets reporting on panic buying and stockpiling, used images of empty shelves with captions saying the images were from March 2020. I’m sure there have been empty shelves in September and while it is natural to recall empty shelves in March, it seemed unhelpful to include these images in reports of potential stockpiling in the last week. Circulating fears and rumours of panic buying seem to me to be part of the cycle that create temporary shortages. Anyway, beside the morality of online news outlets image selection, I think it is interesting how sensitised both consumers and the media now are to stocking levels in supermarkets. Among other things, I think it shows how habituated we were to fully stocked supermarkets before the pandemic. I don’t know about you, but when I go to the supermarket now, I don’t expect to be always find what I want, in stock.

Our collective experiences of buying food over the last 6 months, seem likely to be the reason why, 66% of respondents to a YouGov poll this week said they are worried about the impact of a second wave on UK food supplies.  As we know, one way that consumers managed the impact of Covid on the food supply chain in March and April, was to shift towards local, independent shops. A Twitter thread  we came across this week, suggests that some small businesses who had new customers as a result of the first lockdown feel let down that consumers shifted back to the supermarkets over the summer. Comments from consumers show that some people felt they could afford to shop locally during the lockdown as they were saving money on not going out etc., but as these opportunities have returned, the perceived cost saving at supermarkets has become more appealing. Consumer’s old habits returned. The thread implies that some business owners have mixed feelings about customers returning to their shops if there is a second lockdown – there would be the financial benefit of course, but this is tinged with the disappointment and frustration of feeling dropped by customers who shopped with them earlier in the year. One wonders, what the impact of new restrictions and a potential second lockdown might have on local shops.

With pubs and restaurants now closing earlier, what and where people eat may well change. But how? Will the nation return to the home baking and scratch cooking we saw in March and April, or have many people found alternative interests and activities that can be done at home? Will comfort foods, bought in large volumes in March and April, be as popular if there is a second lockdown, or have we collectively found a healthier way of managing anxiety about the pandemic?  Have opportunities to eat to help out in August re-ignited consumers love for restaurant food enough to retain rising levels of out of home eating? Will more people order takeaways now that many businesses have improved their online platforms and delivery processes? Will the rise in food box meals change? I don’t have answers to all these questions, but it feels to me that many people have found a new normal in terms of the way they want to shop for food and what they want to eat. We will undoubtedly see some trends consolidating and accelerating, and of course new developments emerging. And how we collectively choose to be considerate while shopping remains to be seen.

Sausages + Venison

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

A meat theme to my blog this month and, in particular, a couple of stories that have come my way, one that shows that not all change and innovation is driven by COVID. There are other issues that still matter as well.  The second is an example of an unexpected impact of COVID-induced dietary change.

First to sausages. Sausages are one of those foods that have done well in the market place as a result of COVID and the growth in home cooking. In August, the Evening Standard reported that food producer Cranswick had seen a surge in sales, of 24.8% in the 13 weeks up to June 27th compared to the same period in 2019.  Some of that was because of new acquisitions so that the like-for-like increase in revenue was 19.2%.  But it’s another sausage story that I want to highlight now.  Alongside the challenge of dealing with COVID, there are other priorities that cannot, and should not, be forgotten, associated with climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental deterioration.

One issue that was receiving a great deal of attention during the months immediately prior to the pandemic was the scourge of plastic packaging.  In attempting to reduce the use of plastics in the food sector, meat products pose a particular challenge because of the nature of the product.  But a family-owned sausage manufacturer located just down the road from Exeter in Newton Abbot, Westaways, has pioneered a solution and in June started using the first certified compostable packaging for a retail chilled meat product in the UK.

In partnership with an Italian packaging company Fabbri Group, they have developed and introduced a new wrapping film certified to EN13432, the EU harmonized standard for compostable and biodegradable packaging. Quoted in the trade magazine, Meat Management, Charles Baughan Westaways MD, sums it up as follows: “Visit the meat and dairy produce aisles in most retailers and you are surrounded by plastic of many different types. Plastic is without doubt an easy solution to preserving and presenting food. However, I think most people realise and understand that not all packaging ends up where it should. My team wanted to develop a format for our sausages that meant wherever our packaging ended up it would degrade, leaving no harmful residues or microplastics behind.”

Scientists reading this will want to know which biodegradable route the firm has chosen to go down. Well it’s PBAT (Polybutyrate Adipate Terephthalate), a polymer that is broken down by microbial action. And here’s the twist – PBAT is partly derived from petrochemicals but is often added to other plant-derived bioplastics to improve biodegradability so that products comply with home composting criteria. As the Better Packaging Co, explains ‘when it comes to plant-based inputs there is a trade-off between renewability and compostability – the higher the % renewable, plant-based components the slower it is to compost!’  These issues certainly are complex!  Don’t forget that plants used in purely plant-based plastics are likely to be commercially grown, maize for example, and therefore subject to all the environmental challenges associated with modern agriculture including, of course, its dependence on fossil fuels for fertilizers and fuel for agricultural machines.  Bioplastics without PBAT require high heat industrial composting to break down. Without such heat, they only degrade over a very long timeframe, and in marine environments function similarly to conventional petroleum-based plastic, breaking down into micro-sized pieces, lasting for decades, and presenting a danger to marine life.  And, given this project’s interest in the security of food supplies, plant based bioplastics have a knock-on implication for the amount of land devoted to food plants.  Many would argue that PBAT remains a valid call given this wider context.  And Westaways are to be applauded for their innovation and for pressing on with introducing a new packaging product at the height of the COVID pandemic.

For additional information on the food packaging issue see: UK Parliament POST Proposals to increase UK recycling of plastic food packaging  by Peter Border.

 

My second story concerns wild venison. The Mail Online (21st September) report that a decline in wild venison consumption, already in evidence because of cheaper, farmed imports from New Zealand, Poland, Spain and Portugal, was exacerbated by the collapse in the restaurant trade due to COVID.  With a glut of deer and no incentive for the usual culling, the deer population is growing at a time when the Government aspires to increase woodland coverage to help lock up carbon to combat climate change.  Too many deer (and indeed too many grey squirrels) make it challenging to establish new woodland and also to properly manage existing woodland including through natural regeneration.  Anyone who has ever visited a deer farm with existing woodland will know that deer, in sufficient concentration, like all grazing livestock, are not really compatible with natural regeneration or, indeed, optimal conditions for biodiverse woodland ground flora.  So in the absence of natural predators, like wolves, deer management is essential and close integration with the food supply chain important.  According to the Mail, citing the Game Dealers Association chairman Stephen Crouch, “600,000 deer need to be killed each year to control the UK’s population, which now stands at two million. But the amount stalkers are paid for carcasses has fallen from about £2.50 to £1 per kilo”.  A Wild Venison Working Group, chaired by the Forestry Commission, with representation from stakeholders in woodland management, shooting, gamekeeping, and venison supply sectors, is promising a “Wild Venison Week” early in 2021 to promote consumption.

A degree of hunger: COVID-19, food insecurity, and the higher education sector

An empty, dirty dinner plate

 

By Veronica White

This month, I will finish my master’s degree in Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture, taught in part by academics from the Centre for Rural Policy Research, including Professors Matt Lobley and Michael Winter. We never got a chance to say goodbye when campus closed in March, so I am glad to get this opportunity to work with Matt, Michael and the rest of the research team.

While there have been numerous media articles discussing food security concerns for school-aged children, I was curious about how the pandemic has affected university students. As European borders started closing in mid-March, I returned home to the Netherlands. I am very privileged to have a safe home environment, with parents who can afford to feed me and my sister (and our two boyfriends who ended up living with us during lockdown!). Sharing the cooking responsibilities between the six of us, I ate considerably better than I normally do while at university.

Other students did not have such a positive experience, as highlighted by the Food Insecurity and Lived Experience of Students (FILES) report. This research involved a survey of over 1,200 students across three universities in the UK and one in the US, throughout April 2020.

The survey found that almost 35% of students reported high or very high levels of food insecurity, with the highest levels of food insecurity reported by students who were living alone or with other students. The report also highlights the prevalence of poor mental wellbeing in students, stating that “one in five university students reported experiencing both low levels of food security and low mental wellbeing” during the COVID-19 lockdown.

With almost a quarter of students relying on employment as the primary means of funding their education, job losses associated with COVID-19 have had direct implications for students’ access to food. These finding are reflected in a separate study, which found that loss of income and changing living arrangements were the two strongest predictors of food insecurity among students at three American universities.

The findings from these studies, while alarming, are perhaps not surprising considering that food insecurity was already a prevalent issue within university students prior to the pandemic. Food insecurity has been linked to difficulties concentrating, higher rates of anxiety and lower academic achievements. And considering the racial and ethnic disparities in food security amongst students, increasing levels of food insecurity caused by COVID-19 could hinder efforts at closing the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic student attainment gap.

It is clear that universities welcoming students back this month must find long-term solutions to support students who are experiencing, or at risk of, food insecurity. The FILES report argues for the need to convene a special task force of national stakeholders to review the viability and efficacy of eight recommended policies. These include increasing hardship funds, lowering income thresholds for maintenance grants and establishing a campaign to reduce the stigma around food aid. I encourage university and student union staff to read the report and identify interventions that can be tailored to their student population. Additionally, more research is needed on the state of food security at universities in the UK, as most of the research has focused on students at American universities.

As a research centre based at a university with over 25,000 students, we must acknowledge that students arriving back to Exeter this month may be facing higher levels of food insecurity than pre-COVID*. With all of the uncertainty this new term brings, the last thing students need is to stress about where their next meal is going to come from.

 

*If you are a student at the University of Exeter with financial challenges that are affecting your studies, the university’s Success for All Fund is now open for applications.

The National Food Strategy: Part One – An Initial Assessment

 

National Food Strategy: Part One – an initial assessment by Prof. Michael Winter

 

This eagerly anticipated NFS report does not disappoint. As the report makes clear at the outset, this is not a comprehensive plan for transforming the food system, which will follow in Part Two in 2021. Rather, “it contains urgent recommendations to support this country through the turbulence caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and to prepare for the end of the EU exit transition period on 31 December 2020.” So a bold endeavour then! Henry Dimbleby has grasped the nettle of COVID and assembled a thoroughly useful analysis of the impact of COVID. Below are just a few of the key phrases that stood out to me in his analysis:

Our food system has just endured its biggest stress test since the Second World War. As COVID-19 swept through the UK, the entire machinery of supply and distribution had to be recalibrated, fast. The fact that, after a wobbly start, there were no serious food shortages is a testament to the flexibility and entrepreneurialism of so many food businesses, and the resilience of the system as a whole.

There have, however, been heavy losses. Workers in the food production and retail sectors have suffered some of the highest death rates from COVID-19.

Those in the hospitality sector have taken the biggest economic hit, with a higher proportion of furloughed staff (and expected redundancies) than any other profession.

 At the same time, the virus has shown with terrible clarity the damage being done to our health by the modern food system. Diet-related illness is one of the top three risk factors for dying of COVID-19. This has given a new urgency to the slow-motion disaster of the British diet.

There is a lot of work to do if we are to rebuild a food system that delivers safe, healthy, affordable food to everyone; that is a thriving contributor to our urban and rural economies; that restores and enhances the natural environment for the next generation; that is built upon a resilient, sustainable and humane agriculture sector; and that is robust in the face of future crises.

Many of the data presented on COVID impact are familiar to those of us working on the topic but not all, at least not to me. For example, I had not realised the extent to which restaurants, cafes, pubs and wholesalers donated food to charities rather than see it go to waste – 237% increase on 2019 total donations by May 2020.

Two contrasting data sets about retail also struck me forcibly. On the one hand, relative changes in market share within the retail sector favoured convenience stores and some local outlets. Of the big retailers, only the Co-Op increased its market share under this measure. Convenience stores share of the market grew by 63% between January and June from 1.6% to 2.6% of the total. In January 2020, ten major retailers held 97% of the market, and by June this had declined marginally to 96%. But, of course, the overall market was much larger, and as the report rather graphically puts it, ‘food purchased from over 100,000 small restaurants is now being purchased from ten large grocers’.

In addition to the COVID analysis, the report considers in detail the negative health impacts of our food system and, turning to Brexit, looks in some detail at trade. And in a final chapter on ‘A New Green Revolution’:

This crisis, painful though it is, may soon pale into insignificance compared to the turbulence created by climate change and the collapse in biodiversity.

The current food system does terrible damage to the environment. Building a better future – one where our food no longer makes us, or our planet, sick – will be the biggest challenge of all.      

Earlier I described the report as bold. Perhaps nowhere more so than in the call to speed up agricultural policy change:

There have been calls to delay ELM on the grounds that farmers already have too much on their plates with EU exit. I would argue that now is the moment to act. Not only should the Government press on with the scheme, it should accelerate the implementation.

Be bolder. Go faster. And get as many farmers as possible onto the pilots before the full planned roll out in 2024. This will be critical to ensuring we are on track to meet our net-zero goal prior to COP26.

This boldness worried me because it was unaccompanied by a sense of the scale of change facing farmers with the phasing out of the Basic Payment Scheme. In the second report, I hope to see careful attention given to the challenges facing farmers in these uncertain times.

Finally, the key recommendations are as follows:

  1. Expand eligibility for the Free School Meal scheme to include every child (up to the age of 16) from a household where the parent or guardian is in receipt of Universal Credit (or equivalent benefits).
  2. Extend the Holiday Activity and Food Programme to all areas in England, so that summer holiday support is available to all children in receipt of Free School Meals.
  3. Increase the value of Healthy Start vouchers to £4.25 per week, and expand the scheme to every pregnant woman and to all households with children under 4 where a parent or guardian is in receipt of Universal Credit or equivalent benefits.
  4. Extend the work of the Food to the Vulnerable Ministerial Task Force for a further 12 months up until July 2021. It should collect, assess and monitor data on the number of people suffering from food insecurity at any time, and agree cross-departmental actions, where necessary, to support those who cannot access or afford food.
  5. The Government should only agree to cut tariffs in new trade deals on products which meet our core standards.
  6. The Government should adopt a statutory responsibility to commission and publish an independent report on any proposed trade agreements. The Government should decide whether this impact assessment function requires the establishment of a new body – similar to those which exist in many mature trading nations, including Australia, Canada and the USA – or whether it could be performed by an existing body or by independent consultants (as is the case in the EU).
  7. The Government should adopt a statutory duty to give Parliament the time and opportunity to properly scrutinise any new trade deal. It must allow time for relevant select committees to produce reports on any final deal, and allow a debate in the House of Commons.

 

Michael Winter

New agricultural jobs website launched to connect farms with work-seekers

 

With an acute labour shortage in the seasonal farming industry and millions of people either out of work or furloughed, The Land Army was born with the goal of connecting farms and agricultural businesses with suitable candidates quickly.

Co-founded by Hampshire brothers Ben and Guy Habgood and directed by University of Exeter alumni, Jacob Herandi, The Land Army, team  are confident that “offering more clarity, flexibility and choice to both farms and those seeking work, will help rebut the recent headlines and enable farms to connect with hard working people across the UK”.

The business is also setting aside 5% of each job post to help tackle farming issues, and is in talks with a well-known agricultural charity to establish its first charity partner.