Online Food Business Barometer survey launched

We launched our short Covid Food Business Barometer survey this month. It’s about how things are going for food businesses right now, what they think about the future and how prepared they were for autumn’s Covid-19 restrictions. The survey is just 12 quick questions (we know there are a lot of surveys out there at the moment so we’ve tried to keep it short!).

If you are a food business we invite you to fill in the survey. If you’re not, please do circulate the survey to anyone you think might be interested. The hyperlink above will take you straight to the survey, as will this link: https://exeterssis.eu.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_b29jd2mL3xjhNyJ

After the announcement of Lockdown 2.0 we decided to redesign a longer survey we were planning last month. That survey was about Covid-impacts in different time periods (the first national lockdown and the summer period/tiered lockdown system). We felt that the additional pressures the national lockdown placed on food businesses made a long survey inappropriate, and including an additional lockdown period in the survey would have made it substantially longer. So, with the help of our Expert Panel we have adapted and developed a shorter survey that takes a snapshot of Covid impacts now.

Mapping the UK Food System – A Review

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

Hasnain, S., Ingram, J. and Zurek, M. 2020. Mapping the UK Food System – a report for the UKRI Transforming UK Food Systems Programme. Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford. ISBN 978-1-874370-81-9.

The full report is available on the Global Food Security programme website, where it is supported by an interactive online resource.

This is an impressive piece of work which pulls together a wide range of data on the economic value of the UK food system, the number of enterprises, and levels of employment, providing an assessment of the overall shape of the UK food system and a foundation for further research. It also gathers together in an appendix a goodly number of diagrammatic conceptual representations of the food system. Not easy to copy these from a pdf file (and we might be in breach of copyright if we did!), so take a look at the original and the various attempts made by academics to conceptualise how this complex system works.

Some of the report highlights are as follows:

  • The UK agri-food sector is a major driver of economic growth. Overall, in 2018 it contributed £121 billion or 9.4% to national Gross Value Added (GVA) and the wider system employed 4.3 million people.
  • Food and drink accounts for 20% of the total manufacturing sector by turnover and employs over 430,000 people in the UK.
  • Concentration in the UK economy has increased with time. There are ten large food retailers. Together, the top five food manufacturers have a £30 billion turnover. There are two main UK big players in contract catering while US multinationals dominate fast food alongside SMEs.
  • While the food sector is the biggest employer in the UK, 30% of food manufacturing employees are from the EU (63% of which are in meat processing plants). Other sectors in food employment have low wages, and there is an increasing issue of a lack of appropriate workplace skills.
  •  The UK has the third highest volume sales of ultra-processed foods per capita out of 80 high and middle-income countries, and the most processed diet of countries in Europe. This contributes to the 63% of UK adults being obese or overweight.
  •  Land use is dominated by animal and cereal production (e.g. 52% of croppable area in the UK is covered with cereals).
  • The UK heavily relies on external food sources, particularly the EU. 53% of food consumed in the UK in 2018 was produced domestically, followed by 23% sourced from the EU. There are financial deficits in all food categories, except for drink (due to whisky exports). The UK is importing food that can be grown here, albeit often dictated by seasonality.
  •  Although there are enormous economic benefits from the UK food system, it faces multiple challenges. Diets too rich in fat, sugar, and meat and too low in fruit and vegetables are contributing to obesity and related health problems, especially in deprived households. Unsustainable production methods are driving biodiversity loss, soil degradation, pollution, water scarcity and climate change in both the UK and overseas. Poor working conditions persist, especially for low-skilled labour in the food sector. Meanwhile, stresses and shocks including climate change, COVID-19, and EU-exit highlight the need for greater resilience. It is clear that transformational change is needed, but this must balance with complex trade-offs and competing needs and interests across the food system.

 

Let me also highlight a few key findings from the main body of the report itself:

 

 

Number of people employed Number of enterprises Economic summary £billion
AGRICULTURAL INPUTS SUPPLIERS

56,000

4,800

3.3

FARMING

447,000

217,000

10.3

FISHING & AQUACULTURE

16,000

4,000

0.9

PROCESSING & MANUFACTURING

430,000

11,000

31.1

WHOLESALING

60,000

16,000

3.0

RETAILING

1,171,000

54,000

30.3

CATERING

1,831,000 135,000

36.4

The UK Food System (Figures 2, 3 & 7 of the report)

 

In addition, there are those employed in the production of packaging (a total of 85,000) and logistics (a total of 2,540,000), for which it is impossible from official data to disaggregate food-related elements. 

Economic impacts, business confidence and local lockdowns

 

By Tim Wilkinson

In a month where Tesco’s posted rising profits, some of the economic impacts of the initial national lockdown are becoming clear. With local lockdowns now implemented, the ‘firebreak’ lockdown across Wales from 23rd October and the possibility of a ‘no deal’ Brexit rearing its head; it’s an interesting time to look at some of the economic impacts of Covid-19 on food businesses.

Tesco’s profits in the first half of the year (26 weeks to 28th Aug 2020) were widely reported as surging (see Essential RetailEvening Standard and The Telegraph) with pre-tax profits up 29% to £551 million. The tidal wave of shoppers opting to do a ‘big shop’, a huge uptick in online orders (up 69%) and the panic buying in March/April all contributed to an operating profit of 1.2bn in the UK retail arm. However, the bottom line was affected by lower sales and an operating loss for Tesco’s Bank, as well as poorer performance in Tesco’s European retail operations. Even so, this increase in profits is clearly significant, and illustrates the extent to which the pandemic has affected consumers buying habits and food choices. Of course, tides may already be changing, as shoppers return to the likes of Aldi and competition in the home delivery market rises.

Tesco may have profited, but the hospitality sector has suffered. Increased home cooking and Covid safe procedures limiting customer numbers, appear to be partly responsible for impacts in the casual dining sector. For instance, owners of Wagamama’s, Frankie & Benny’s and Garfunkel’s chain, The Restaurant Group, posted a pre-tax loss of £235 million (for 26 weeks to 28th June) – almost £150 million more than a loss made in June 2019.  There has, however, been higher sales between July and September 2020 , as restrictions relaxed and some people returned to eating out. Pub chain Wetherspoons reported a loss of £34 million for the year ending in July 2020 (down from a £103 million profit in 2019) – the first annual loss in 36 years . With sales of alcohol in grocery stores up 8% in September and 10pm closing times, there are clearly challenging times for pubs ahead. This month also saw a report of the closure of street food businesses, such as Street Feast, which traded at four sites in London, but struggled to operate under Covid restrictions. While the summer has offered possibilities for al fresco dining and drinking, as winter draws in, one wonders how consumers will respond. I noticed translucent pods outside a café in Exeter, which offered customers some respite from the weather, but clearly, capacity is limited. How far does new(ish) spaces like these, take food businesses?

Away from the financial performance of individual businesses, the Office of National Statistics Business Impact of Covid-19 Survey makes very interesting reading.  In the two weeks from 7th to 20th Sept, 2375 accommodation and food service businesses responded to the survey. Of these respondents, around 2% said business turnover and profit had increased by more than 20%, compared to what they would normally expect for this time of year.[1]  Meanwhile, over 40% of accommodation and food businesses reported that both turnover and profit had decreased by over 20% compared to normal expectations for this time of year.[2]  Such financial figures appear to translate into business confidence, with 30% of accommodation and food businesses reporting that they had low (25.4%), or no (4.6%), confidence that they would survive the next 3 months. While the picture for businesses overall (including all industries, not just accommodation and food) has improved since March, these figures highlight the continued extent of the economic impacts of Covid-19.

With local lockdowns and tiered restrictions in the UK, there is an increasingly pronounced geographical dimension to how these impacts will transform, going forwards. As restrictions alter the possibilities for the food service industry and probably customer preferences for food purchase, along administrative boundaries, existing regional differences in the food system, may well become more marked.

 

[1] Question: In the last two weeks, how has the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic affected turnover/profits, compared with normal expectations for this time of year? Statistics calculated through sum of turnover/profit categories ‘increased by 20-50%’ and ‘increased by over 50%’. Turnover total (2.5% plus unspecified amount less than 1%), profit total (1.9%)

[2] Question: In the last two weeks, how has the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic affected turnover/profits, compared with normal expectations for this time of year? Statistics calculated through sum of turnover/profit categories ‘decreased by 20-50%’ and ‘decreased by over 50%’. Turnover total (45.9%), profit total (40.3%)

Survey design as lockdown rules change

By Tim Wilkinson

This month we have been working on designing a questionnaire survey for food businesses. Our survey is exploring the impacts of Covid-19 restrictions and the strategies businesses have implemented in response. It has been challenging designing a survey that will capture the multiple and varied impacts of Covid on business operations, and which addresses the different phases of the lockdown restrictions, which have shaped the type and degree of those impacts. As with nearly all aspects of life at the moment, the process of survey design has been one of adjusting to new Covid restrictions – to make sure the survey works in a variety of lockdown contexts. We discussed a draft of the questionnaire with our Expert Panel last week, and we are currently working with their feedback to develop the survey. We will launch the survey, online, in November.

We are going to be seeking respondents from a range of businesses from different food sectors (e.g. fruit and vegetables, meat, dairy etc.) and from different stages of the supply chain. Having created a sampling frame, after much discussion, we decided to focus on several stages of the food supply chain – but not all. We are focussing on transporters of primary products, food processors, manufacturers, importers, exporters, wholesalers and distributors. We have chosen not to cover primary producers, hospitality or retailers in the survey – although they are important parts of the food system. This was partly because it was so challenging to write robust questions that individual businesses from across the whole food system could answer in a standard way. But also because there are excellent secondary data sources from market research, particularly for retail and hospitality. We will be exploring the impacts of Covid-19 on primary producers in our Centre for Rural Policy Research South West Farm Survey 2020, which we launched this month. We are also investigating the possibility of running a survey of tourism and hospitality businesses in the South West early next year to gather data on this sector.

As part of our background work in this part of the project, we reviewed existing surveys that look at the impacts of Covid-19 on businesses. There are, of course, a number of surveys doing this. We found 16, but not all were exclusively about food businesses (they covered a range of industries). Some surveys focussed on only one stage in the food supply chain (for example, only covering manufacturers or food processors). Other surveys only looked at businesses in one particular UK region or had geographical foci abroad. It is worth checking out the Office of National Statistics (ONS) Business Impact of Coronavirus Survey, which has tracked changes to business turnover, workforce, prices, trade and resilience every two weeks since 9th March. The ONS data set includes all industries, although some separate data are available for food and beverage importers and exporters.

Despite identifying a wide range of Covid-19 impact surveys, we found that a cross-sectoral look at the impacts of Covid-19 on food business specifically, both during and after the national lockdown in the UK, has not been made. In such a rapidly changing situation, we are discussing the possibility of repeating the survey at some point next year. However, we will use the data we collect in November to understand the food chain responses to shocks in 2020. We will be exploring our key findings in interviews with businesses in order to understand more of the story behind the incredible shifts in business practice. The outcomes of the research will be available to inform policy on food business resilience and preparedness for future shocks to the supply chain and food system.

Meat Again!

Four raw meat steaks on a wooden table

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

I found myself in Grimsby recently talking about meat! Well not literally on the east coast, for it was yet another virtual encounter.  The National Food Strategy invited me to be an ‘expert’ for one of their public dialogue events and a fascinating evening it proved to be. I have had a number of experiences of public engagement events over the years and this one was no exception in proving to be stimulating and fun with a touch of the unexpected thrown in. I can’t breach confidentiality by revealing the views of the Grimsby people I ‘met’. But I can say how impressed I was by their willingness to engage with the excellent material prepared by the NFS team and contribute to some stimulating debate on the issue of meat consumption. The debate was wide ranging and certainly not confined only to health and/or methane and climate change. I look forward to seeing what use the NFS makes of insights drawn from the public dialogues.

I drew particular satisfaction from the Grimsby conversations for two reasons: first the non- confrontational nature of the exchanges in contrast to other discussions on the topic I have on occasion been party to; and secondly, the novelty of some of the thinking.  There has not been a great deal new said on the meat debate in recent research publications that I have seen – the climate change and dietary arguments now follow a rather well-worn path. But I sat up when I saw the title of a new publication from the Global Food Security Programme, mainly because I didn’t initially understand it: ‘Low-agency population interventions to reduce meat consumption’ (Reynolds et al 2020).  It transpires that agency in this context refers to people’s ability or inclination to act, and therefore low-agency population interventions are those that require little or no engagement from the individuals affected.  Does this mark a shift from the behaviour change agenda that has been rather dominant for quite a while in debates about shifting people towards more sustainable and healthy lifestyles?  Well a single academic paper does not amount to a policy shift, so only time will tell whether the low-agency approach has traction.  But what exactly does it mean in practice?  The authors propose low-agency population interventions as a response to the intention-behaviour gap citing studies that have shown that a willingness amongst some consumers to reduce meat consumption may not lead to a change in levels of consumption.  This is usually put down to the widespread availability of meat, large portion sizes, marketing, and the low cost of less healthy foods. In this context it is ‘unlikely that the sole provision of information about the health and environmental risks associated with meat consumption will reduce its consumption’. The alternative low agency approach is where:

… food environments are designed to encourage individuals to make healthier and more sustainable food choices without limiting their freedom of choice. In these environments, extreme levels of self-control would not be required to avoid the overconsumption of meat. Instead, changes to the environment would guide individuals toward consuming less meat with minimal conscious engagement and may therefore be more effective and equitable than other strategies. This approach can also change norms; being provided with smaller portion sizes can lead to individuals choosing smaller portions in other settings.  Low-agency population interventions include taxes on less healthy foods or nudging strategies like changing the availability and placement of food products, reformulating food products and changing portion sizes. These approaches have been demonstrated to reduce individuals’ excess consumption of many types of food (e.g. chocolate, hot meals, crisps) and therefore have potential for reducing meat consumption.

The authors have systematically reviewed a wide range of literature to explore the various low agency options and are careful to point out how robust the evidence and data are for each option. Except that this careful objectivity slips in the conclusions where they say that ‘stakeholders working to produce and sell meat products throughout the food system are likely to oppose such interventions’. For this bold claim they cite a single reference which is a study of fast food vendors near secondary schools in disadvantaged Scottish neighbourhoods and is based on interviews with ten fast food shop managers. I would suggest that this rather specific source hardly provides sufficient evidence to make a claim about what might happen throughout the food system, a system which is highly complex and diverse and which our research is seeking to uncover and explain.

 

Reynolds J.P. Scalco A. Ejebu O. Toumpakari Z. Smith A. Lu F. Clark B. and Penney T.L. (2020) Low-agency population interventions to reduce meat consumption, Report produced for the Global Food Security Programme. September 2020.

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.