What does Covid-19 mean for the UK food system?

9th Apr 20 by Phil Holtam

We have set out how things currently look and developed scenarios for the UK’s fresh food in 2020 in light of Covid-19.

The UK food chain is changing rapidly and dramatically as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. These changes are playing out at the beginning of the “hungry gap” (March to May) when reliance on imports of fresh fruit and vegetables is at its annual peak. It is impossible to predict the time frame within which the food system will return to a stable footing especially when you add Brexit into the mix. Nonetheless, to try to make sense of the complex and evolving situation, Feedback has set out below how things currently look and developed scenarios for the UK’s fresh food in 2020. 

Where we’re at 

Tim Lang’s new book Feeding Britain carries the now prescient message that the UK’s food chain is more fragile than it appears. An over-reliance on imported food (just 53% of what we eat is produced here, and even less in terms of fruit and vegetables) and seasonal migrant workers with the stamina and skills to harvest our crops, are two key vulnerabilities in our food system that the Covid-19 crisis has exposed. 

The sight of empty supermarket shelves in March brought into question whether our food system can cope with the impacts of Covid-19. As shelf-stackers worked tirelessly, the government and supermarket executives continued to reassure the public that food shortages would not occur. What began as a surge in demand for canned and dried foods (not to mention soap and loo-rolls) was then followed a week later by retailers struggling to keep fresh food available. 

Analysts have argued that whilst emotive stockpiling was certainly a factor, two other main causes of bare shelves were the just-in-time supply chains of supermarkets being stretched beyond their limit and many households simply needing more in their fridge as food to go outlets, canteens and restaurants closed. Things have since settled somewhat with supermarkets relaxing item restrictions which had been introduced to spread stock availability. Meanwhile, delivery services are expanding as fast as possible to match demand. 

Social distancing has changed food consumption habits drastically and had major implications for the flow of fresh produce at the wholesale level, in particular as demand from the entire restaurant sector suddenly dropped. Meanwhile processing and manufacturing has felt the effect of demand for convenience and on-the-go products fall. Many wholesalers have had to reconfigure their route to market with next to no preparation time, and some have even set up lines of direct to customer sales routes to cater to local supply. However it would seem that the majority of the extra supply previously destined for hospitality has been redirected towards the burgeoning retail sector. 

Food redistribution charities are receiving an unprecedented level of food donations. Where businesses are unable to find buyers for their products, more than ever before they are donating food to the likes of FareShare, City Harvest and the Felix Project. However organisations working in food redistribution are fully aware that the availability of surplus food fluctuates and may dip in future. Food produced for the food service or catering industry is not reaching its intended destination and instead is ending up at charities in record quantities, which begs the question of for how long it can continue to be dispatched at source? 

At the same time, there are reports that food banks relying on donations from the public are struggling with a massive increase in demand/need for their services, and a drastic drop in donations of both food and volunteer time. Also, these food banks are set up to store and distribute ambient foods such as tinned vegetables or pasta, which are exactly those foods that are currently scarce due to panic buying. Huge donations in fresh produce diverted from a collapsed hospitality sector require faster handling and more complex storage and transport infrastructure, currently not available to many food banks.

At the farm level the clear concern is land worker vacancies. For larger producers reliant on migrant labour, there’s been a big push for picker recruitment coming from Concordia, Fruitful Labour and HOPS – who received over 10,000 enquiries for farm jobs inside of a week and currently have filled vacancies for April. Whether the #FeedTheNation campaign will work to the extent required to fill the 80,000 vacancies nationwide this harvest season, it’s hard to say. Some farms think that worker shortages may actually be less bad than in recent years (caused by Brexit/weak £) due to increased unemployment as people are becoming available from being laid off in hospitality and ornamental horticulture as many plant nurseries and garden centres down-scale or close. 

However Concordia and others think that farms will struggle to harvest crops and worries about picker shortages are legitimate. Whilst issuing temporary gangmasters licences may be necessary to ensure farms have vacancies filled, this should not be at the expense of workers rights and fair pay. It is also worth emphasising that the recruitment problem will be felt just as acutely, if not more, in countries such as Spain, Italy, France, Holland and Germany who regularly export produce to the UK. For example, Spanish agriculture relies heavily on Moroccan seasonal labour, now in short supply.

Where we may be heading

One lesson of this pandemic is that events do not unfold along expected pathways. Overall we expect both reduced food imports and a reduced labour supply, but what is impossible to predict given the fluid and fast-moving nature of things is how much these two issues will bite and how much they will interact with each other. Given this evolving context, here are three scenarios for UK’s fresh produce that include what we think will be the determining factors in terms of the quantities of food that make their way to the household.

[The time period for these scenarios are the upcoming horticultural season – spanning from April 2020 into early 2021]

Scenario 1: Scarce supply

  • UK production is disrupted by labour shortages with problems recruiting workers and 20% of working population forced into self-isolation with virus symptoms
  • Imports of fresh produce slows to a trickle due to distribution bottlenecks and shortage of labour on farms in southern Europe
  • Fresh produce price hikes as supply falls
  • Retailers reduce cosmetic standards on lines of fruit and veg
  • Those that can, grow their own
  • Delivery systems run at capacity and struggle to expand, e.g maxed out order slots continue
  • Business closures across the food chain due to illness, transport restrictions and cash flow
  • Surplus is drastically reduced at each stage of production & distribution, gleaning opportunities are severely limited 
  • Redistribution organisations move towards procurement as donations of surplus dry up
  • Diets shift towards preserved- tins, jars and dried food
  • Exacerbated nutritional inequality

  Scenario 2: Glitchy  

  • The flow of food from EU neighbours is patchy as the UK Government tries to prop up EU imports
  • Worker recruitment is successful to the extent that production almost matches 2019 levels, but virus contamination hampers many food businesses
  • Some food businesses close and large volumes of food are donated
  • Delivery systems get up to speed and are able to expand
  • Prices rise and fluctuate
  • Availability is limited and diets are affected
  • Limited support for new entrants to agriculture
  • Surplus in fits and starts with large volumes of food donated unpredictably

Scenario 3: Prioritised Food Security

  • #FeedTheNation gets hands on the land and production is increased
  • Government and/or industry coordinate a large-scale volunteer harvest effort
  • New entrants are supported to boost domestic production
  • Government intervenes to secure supply chains from southern EU but fall in imports is matched by increase in UK production
  • Government guarantees minimum price for crop to combat increased harvesting costs due to social distancing on farms
  • Seasonal diet becomes the new norm 
  • Retail prices are capped to ensure affordability
  • National push towards allotments and grow your own
  • Urban spaces converted into market gardens
  • Systemic overproduction in response to crisis means surplus continue and gleaning at agri-businesses remains necessary

What we need

We call on government, national and local, as well as Local Enterprise Partnerships to support the #FeedTheNation campaign to provide employment pathways into agriculture. Roles should be paid at the Living Wage Foundation living wage.

We’re firmly behind Tim Lang’s call for a Food Resilience and Sustainability Act which would ingrain secure access to healthy, sustainably produced food as a right for all citizens. We support the Land Workers’ Alliance call for a Food Army fund to support small farms and market gardeners with small business grants, to transition the supply chain towards local routes, provide start-up costs to new entrants and develop a community resilience programme. 

Help us get good food to those who need it

The global pandemic means that our work in getting fresh, nutritious produce to people has never been more critical. We need your support to help make this happen. Any funds raised now will be committed to our COVID-19 food rescue, preparation and redistribution work.

Will you help Feedback continue to do our vital work? Thank you.

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