Second of our Food System Impacts of COVID-19 monthly Project Bulletins is out now.
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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:
The EFRA Committee’s COVID-19 and Food Supply Inquiry has published its report. It is the second major report on UK food systems/food supply to be published in two days (see National Food Strategy – Part One)
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.
Prof. Michael Winter OBE – Principal Investigator
I originally wrote the research proposal that led to the funding for this project in early April, at the height of concern over the impacts of COVID-19 on food supplies. Empty supermarket shelves for particular items, such as flour, were receiving wide media coverage alongside reports on the impacts of labour shortages and the closure of restaurant and similar outlets. There was also speculation that the supermarkets would not cope in the weeks to follow and that new, shorter supply chains would emerge rapidly in response. Three months on, it is clear that many of the dire warnings made in March and April have not materialized in the stark terms used by some commentators in the early stages of the crisis.
Indeed, in many ways, the food supply chain has demonstrated a high degree of resilience. The recent BBC 2 documentary, Keeping Britain Fed, was a paean of praise for the supermarkets and the Just-in-Time system. Workers in stores, distribution centres, and delivery vans were lauded, rightly so, for their dedication and hard work. The praise extended to factories that had adapted their production lines – a sausage manufacturer in Northern Ireland, a flour mill in the north of England – and again workers were praised for their efforts on behalf of the nation. Of course, good news stories really are only part of the picture and, good news in some businesses may well be the mirror image of bad news elsewhere: home-made toad-in-the-hole benefitting the flour and sausage manufactures at the expense of MacDonald’s burgers or KFC chicken. And certainly not all commentators have followed the ‘good news’ line. On the 24th June, Ellie Simmonds of Which? argued that “the fragility of our food and drink supply chains has been laid bare thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. The unforgettable images of empty supermarket shelves when coronavirus first hit the UK showed just how vulnerable our supply chains are to even slight fluctuations in supply and demand. It might be easier to get hold of baked beans and flour now, but the disruption isn’t over. Just last week, Marmite said its supplies have been hit by a lack of yeast, while soy sauce is in short supply due to a shortage of bottles, and 30 food and drink bodies have warned that COVID-19 has laid bare ‘inherent weaknesses’ in the resilience of the UK food supply chain”.
So what do we make of two such contrasting story lines? I would argue that both are true. Through sheer hard work – by delivery drivers, warehouse staff, factory workers, logistics experts etc, – there were indeed remarkably few shortages in those critical weeks of April and May, and this is/was all the more remarkable given the very different pattern of demand arising from the sudden switch-off of the hospitality sector. But at the same time there are underlying fragilities and vulnerabilities which are systemic. These vulnerabilities were expertly set out by Philip Garnett, Bob Doherty and Tony Heron, all from the University of York, in a paper in Nature Food in June: “Despite advances in supply chain technology and logistics” the York team argue that Just-in-Time efficiency “has paradoxically made supply chains more vulnerable to disruptions”. Moreover, a reduction by retailers in the diversity of the supplier base, means we are ever more dependent on fewer and fewer geographical places for particular commodities. But it’s not only system fragility that is a cause of concern in the contemporary food system, there are also fundamental issues of how fair and equitable the system is for producers of food and for consumers and how much it is contributing to the nation’s health challenges around obesity and related diseases.
Our project cannot possibly deal with all these issues. What we plan to do is provide an overview of some of the challenges faced by the food system as a result of the pandemic and to do some case studies of adjustment within particular sectors. I was struck by what one of our Expert Panel members said to me in conversation a couple of weeks ago: “the problem is that food system resilience is a black box, we don’t fully understand why it works or know all the inter-dependencies that are critical for particular sectors”. Hopefully our project will shine a light into the black box to increase our understanding of at least some of the challenges and opportunities thrown up by COVID-19.
Michael Winter, July 2020
The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Edinburgh is undertaking a survey to ask farmers their opinion on the challenges and potential solutions related to their business associated with COVID-19 and their thinking about the future of farming. See the survey form at:
Or contact Jan Dick, , 0131 445 8578 for a paper copy or further explanation
Our project is designed to be open and iterative, so it is here, front and centre on our homepage where we will also share our intelligence on food sector issues as we gather it, and our results and analysis as it emerges.
Our project is also designed to be collaborative and interactive, so it is also here where stakeholders will be able to comment on our results and analysis, discuss emerging themes, and post evidence and opinion of their own.
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.