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Coronavirus: The Food Supply Dimension

Written by Elizabeth Freeman

They say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, and perhaps this has never been more true than in early March this year, as it became clear how severe the Coronavirus pandemic was set to become in Europe. Suddenly UK consumers were faced, for the first time in many of our lifetimes, with empty supermarket shelves.

Strangely enough for a pandemic caused by a virus that attacks the respiratory system, the first thing to go was toilet paper. But anxiety spreads quickly, and soon photos circulated of shelves stripped of essentials; from flour to dried pasta, and everything from eggs to chickpeas were reported as impossible to track down across the continent.

The media criticised greedy panic buyers as the cause of the chaos, but sales figures suggest that it was more a question of lots of people picking up a few extra items, rather than a handful of excessive buyers. When you multiply these small changes across the system, they make a big difference, and shelves start to look a little barer.

The upshot is that public attention was drawn to a subject that is largely invisible in our daily lives: food supply chains.

Experts were quick to reassure us that empty shelves were not a sign of food shortages, but a symptom of the ‘just in time’ system that brings food to our supermarkets. Food arrives where it needs to be - with the distributor, then the supermarket – at just the point at which it’s needed for that stage. Shops carry very little excess stock, because storage is more expensive in their retail site than it would be in a more distant warehouse facility. So goods only arrive for retail right before they’re needed on the shelves, and unexpected changes in demand can take time to respond to.

Food Policy expert Tim Lang argues in Feeding Britain that this system has brought many benefits over the years, but that it also contributes to the overall vulnerability of our food supply. It has meant lower food prices across the board (though this isn’t always a good thing itself), but also means that the slightest disruption can have far-reaching consequences across the supply chain. When the threat of a no-deal Brexit was looming, delays at the border and the introduction of customs checks could have ground the food distribution system to a complete halt. A more resilient food system thus needs a way to work around the shortfalls of just-in-time processes, because the impact of climate breakdown, Brexit and other geopolitical crises continue to pose a threat to our food supply chains. Seeing empty shelves is a visceral reminder of the precarity of our food supply, and that is why they received so much attention, but next time we might not be so fortunate.

As supermarkets floundered to adapt, local initiatives sprung up to ensure people across the country had access to safe, healthy food. From village pubs shifting their offering to double up as convenience stores, and restaurants turning into to soup kitchens to make sure the vulnerable had hot meals, there was a burst of activity that showed just how flexible our food system was capable of being. Crucially, however, these initiatives were all people-lead from the bottom up: from the government, little was being offered.

When pushed in parliament to quell public fears of food shortages in early March, Conservative MP and minister for Defra George Eustice responded that supermarkets had assured him that food supply would go uninterrupted for the course of the pandemic. In other words, the de facto policy of the government is to let the free market take care of things.

Setting aside the issue that this contradicted what the general public were experiencing across the country, this is problematic because it gives supermarkets a free pass to do as they please. While the Defra website lists a host of measures that supermarkets have taken to allow people to shop safely and get food delivered to them if vulnerable, these measures remain voluntary (as witnessed by the variation in different measures taken by each chain), and not consistently applied, while the process of registering online as extremely vulnerable in order to qualify for supermarket delivery slots was often met with confusion and rejection. Opportunistic price rises were common across essential items, and most recently, Marks and Spencer came under criticism for charging £13 for a hand sanitizer.

The government’s focus on supermarkets also reveals a simplification of the supply systems involved in getting food to our tables. Although they account for 90% of retail sales in the UK (27% of which come from a single chain, Tesco), there is another side to the food system, which accounts for restaurants, cafeterias in schools and offices and more, which was suddenly forced to a halt as these establishments had to close. In other words, we do not have a food system in the UK, we have two, which run largely in isolation of one another. When one is no longer able to operate, the other must take up the slack.

An example of how inefficient the transformation from one to the other can be is free school meals. A total of 15.4% of pupils this year were eligible for the scheme, an indicator of low household income: most parents whose children receive them would be unable to feed their children otherwise. In order to make up for gap in food provision when children could no longer go to school, teachers were emailed vouchers to send to families, which they could print and redeem against grocery purchases in supermarkets. But many of the families concerned had no access to a printer or email, meaning teachers had to print the vouchers themselves, and hand deliver them on their own time – all this at a time when they were also having to transform their teaching to the online sphere. Even then, many teachers found themselves buying groceries for pupils out of their own pocket when families found at the checkout that the vouchers didn’t work at the designated supermarkets.

That this process was administered by the Department for Education is symptomatic of the numerous stakeholders in policies concerning UK food: a recent guidance note by the Food Research Collaboration identified 16 different government departments making decisions that affect food policy. On the one hand this indicates how deeply entrenched food is in our everyday lives, and how many other aspects of society, from transport to energy to culture, touch it along the way. But combine this fact with the lack of an overarching framework to unify them, and there is a risk of contradiction and confusion both when it comes to food policies themselves, and in the public’s perception of them.

It is crucial that the National Food Strategy currently in public consultation helps to resolve this. The designated lead, Henry Dimbleby, has expressed a desire to establish cross-party support through the strategy, by working with stakeholders across different sectors in society, and its aims are to produce a road map for ensuring Britons have access to healthy, varied and safe food that is also sustainable.

Notably, it isn’t since the second world war, which resulted in the famous ‘dig for victory’ that anything of the sort has been attempted in the UK. As we face up to the upheaval of Brexit, the increasing threat of climate change and now COVID-19, the need for a resilient food system is increasingly urgent. Rather than seeing the current crisis as an isolated phenomenon, any food strategy worth its salt will need to be able to respond to crises quickly and efficiently, and central to this process will need to be food systems that are more embedded in local communities, something that looks to be fulfilled with a planned citizens’ assembly on the subject. We have come to see an interest in the origins of our food as a uniquely middle-class concern, but from those empty shelves to the environment, this is an issue that concerns everyone, and it is only in acknowledging that that the government can work towards a more equitable food system.

The timing of the strategy, as we leave a union that supplies us with 27% (by value) of the food on our plates, is no coincidence. There is a distinct possibility that a trade deal with the US will bring with it concessions on food standards that would have been unthinkable under EU membership. While it is impossible to avoid the fact that supply chains in the 21st century are inherently global – denying this fact would require a lot of us getting used to a diet far less varied than we are currently used to –, a focus on localism where it is economically and environmentally viable is key to ensuring that supplying the country with good food does not become a race to the bottom.

Navigating the balance between small and large scale food production, and the role both must play in the future of farming on a national level needs to work on a local level too. Bristol and Ghent are cities that have successfully implemented local food policies that combine a concern for health, people and planet. Not only does strategy on a local level give people a greater sense of ownership in the food system, but it reflects a fundamental shift towards shorter food chains, providing a framework though which traditionally unpaid labour such as care in the local community can be valorised. When we consider that one of the key changes that coronavirus has triggered is a greater public consciousness around food supply, this seems to be a particularly valuable time to capitalise on that.

When we look at the actions across society that mitigated the worst of the effects of the pandemic, from the rapid transformation of local food business, to interventions by schools, and mutual aid groups, they are markedly local in scale. Looking forward, the government needs to be pursuing food policy that promotes diverse sources, making it more resilient to interruptions of different kinds. It is unavoidable that food supply systems in the modern world have a global outlook, but work needs to be done to ensure the government creates a framework for resilient and dependable food systems that embrace citizen input and measurable outcomes.

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