Coronavirus (COVID-19): What can a global pandemic teach us about our food system?

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Food system workers at home and abroad are working incredibly hard to ensure that food is available during the COVID-19 pandemic. After patchy initial shortages as shopping patterns changed and people prepared for longer periods at home, Which? reported that shortages of specific items in the UK declined in April and May compared to March, and farmers have continued to reassure the public that food is being produced. 

However, that does not mean it is plain sailing. There are real issues for some sectors of the food production and supply industry; there are examples of reduced access to some products; and indeed, access to food in general is problematic for some of the most vulnerable in society. During the course of the lockdown, some insights have emerged about the Scottish – and indeed the global – food system.

We don’t always produce what we eat – or eat what we produce

The food system involves complex flows of goods across borders, which may be logical from a business perspective and responsive to market demands under normal circumstances, but is perhaps less resilient to disruption.

As an example, the vast majority of Scottish seafood is exported, while most seafood products consumed in the UK are imported from elsewhere. This is sometimes put down to British tastes in seafood being limited to few species – cod, haddock, tuna, salmon and prawns – which has led to a higher consumption of frozen products from lower-cost producers, while there is a high-value market for diverse Scottish seafood abroad.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Scottish fishing industry has faced huge difficulties because of the widespread closure of restaurants and hotels – both in the domestic and international markets. For the shellfish sector, the near-overnight closure of markets in southern Europe caused trade to drop to zero for some businesses.

There is often a long way between producer and consumer – structures can impede access

Not always producing what we eat or eating what we produce has the effect that there is often a long way between producers and consumers. This distance can be geographic, as in the fisheries example above, or it can be structural, in terms of complex supply chains between consumers and producers.

The current situation has highlighted the reliance on processing systems to ensure that raw materials get to citizens. Take, for example, the widespread shortage of flour in British supermarkets, due to increased domestic demand during the lockdown. The National Association of British and Irish Millers have said that the problem is not a shortage of flour, but that the supply chain is not geared up to package that many smaller bags for home baking, with most flour sold in commercial-sized 16- or 32kg bags. They state:

“The problem, with regard to home-baking flour, is that ordinarily the market share is tiny – just 4 per cent, compared to the commercial sector. There is no problem in milling enough flour, but the sudden spike in demand has led to issues in physically being able to pack enough small, household bags for distribution to supermarkets and grocery stores. Retail packing lines are running 24 hours a day, seven days a week and overall output has doubled in the past month.”

The industry is responding by pointing people to where they can access larger bags if they feel they will be able to use it, and in ramping up production of smaller bags as much as they can.

Dairy has also faced structural issues. With the closure of the hospitality sector, parts of the dairy sector is struggling, with some farmers having to pour milk on the fields as this demand dries up. A lack of additional processing capacity and changes to demand has meant that the excess milk has had nowhere to go, and farmers are understandably worried, both as a result of the financial loss and the sense of waste.

These sector-specific crises highlight how we rely on a chain of processing, packaging and distribution, which is efficient under normal circumstances, but in being highly specialised and sometimes geographically dispersed, cannot always easily shift gear. This may, in times of disruption, impede access, and lead to problems within the industry.

We are completely reliant on food system workers

While some sectors are facing challenges with processing, markets and distribution, others are facing shortages of labour. Roughly 10,000 seasonal farm workers support the Scottish fruit and vegetable harvest each year (80,000 across the UK). It has been widely reported that a shortage of workers from abroad due to movement restrictions may mean that food cannot be harvested. Some farmers have chartered planes to bring farm workers from Bulgaria and Romania, following other western European countries in doing so; though following reports of crowded airports with workers en route to Germany, this has prompted concerns for the health of migrant workers. One thing is certain: with workers desperate for income when their home countries are locked-down, employers desperate for workers to ensure incomes and food supplies are not disrupted, and everyone needing to make sure they eat, our interdependence and reliance is clear.

Drives to recruit seasonal workers from home have had mixed success. Some areas in Angus have reported successfully filling many of their vacancies. However, in other areas across the UK, the incidence of both workers and employers struggling to complete the recruitment process and secure work or labour has highlighted the difficulty of these jobs, and the skill involved in doing them.

Likewise, with access to food at the forefront of everyone’s minds during lockdown, society’s reliance on farmers, shop workers, and distributors is also highlighted. But so is the value placed on these jobs, with the issue of persistent low pay raised by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW).

The current situation forces us to ask questions about how we have valued these jobs in the past. With “essential worker” now firmly part of the public lexicon, what policy choices are available to ensure that their importance is reflected?

Access to food is highly unequal

Resilient food systems can deliver food security for society as a whole, but food security is also incumbent on the ability of people to access food.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) define food security as

“when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

A YouGov poll between 7-9 April 2020, commissioned by the Food Foundation and the RSA’s Food Farming and Countryside Commission, found that “the number of adults who are food insecure in Britain is estimated to have quadrupled under the COVID-19 lockdown” (measured in terms of skipping or reducing the size of their meals, being hungry but not eating, and/or going a whole day without eating because they could not afford food or could not access food).

They report that “food insecurity has worsened for economically vulnerable under COVID-19 conditions”, and that the crisis “has also created new economic vulnerability for people experiencing income-losses and self-isolation.”

Of those who had experienced food insecurity, many had done so as a result of not being able to leave their home to obtain food. Therefore, while economic inequality during this time is one factor contributing to food insecurity, health inequality may also be. In Scotland, the death rate from COVID-19 is 2.3 times higher in the most deprived areas compared to the least. This may be due to a number of factors such as people working in higher risk occupations and a higher prevalence of long term health conditions in deprived areas. It is possible that people already at risk of food insecurity may also be more likely to be shielding due to existing health conditions, and therefore unable to go out for food.

Recognising the risk of food insecurity, the Scottish Government developed the £30m Food Fund to provide support to access food for those whose children receive free school meals, the elderly, or those in ‘at-risk’ categories.

But what does this say about food insecurity overall? Whilst the crisis has certainly exacerbated food insecurity, it is not a problem unique to these times. When the lockdown lifts and COVID-related economic restrictions ease, how will we treat ongoing food insecurity in Scotland?

Responding to times of crisis

They say that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, and while the food system undoubtedly is facing challenges, there are also plenty of examples of innovation and creativity.

From the perspective of producers and suppliers, the Scottish Farmer, Scotland’s weekly agriculture publication, posed the question in a recent article whether delivering direct to consumers would become the new norm, with a number of producers reporting switching to selling direct, with some seeing a large increase in online sales.

Demand for box schemes directly from producers has soared. From a scan of fourteen producers in Scotland offering box schemes on everything from meat to fish to vegetables, at the time of writing, eleven were fully subscribed due to the current high demand.

With entire markets closing for the fisheries sector, Scottish businesses have started shifting gear with some companies beginning to offer “loch to door” delivery to customers closer to home. SeaFish, the non-departmental public body that supports the seafood industry, has provided guidance on selling direct to consumers to try to provide a market closer to home.

Even some wholesalers have switched to supplying directly to consumers where they would normally have supplied the hospitality sector, with examples including in  Edinburgh and Tayside.

Considering the perspective of citizens and communities, a Censuswide poll commissioned by the charity Hubbub polled 2000 people to find out how eating habits had changed during the lockdown. The answer was rather a lot. The full results can be explored in their blog, but to highlight a few poignant examples:

  • Like the Food Foundation, Hubbub found that a large group are concerned about the cost of food.
  • Many people also reported positive changes. 44% of people reported enjoying cooking more, and 47% enjoyed the opportunity to eat with family or housemates.
  • A large minority have improved their cooking skills during this time.
  • Just under half of respondents feel that they are wasting less food, and have changed their habits to prevent waste.
  • One quarter reported buying better quality food because they are not spending money on other things.
  • Over a third responded that they are supporting small and local businesses more.

But perhaps most interestingly, 89% of people who reported having made changes to their habits have said that “they will continue to use a least one of the new shopping alternatives to supermarkets”.

So, we may see longer-term changes to the food system, with new experiences fuelling structural change. The question is will our food policy change in the face of this new normal?

Anna Brand, Senior Researcher, Rural Affairs, Agriculture and Fisheries

Image credit: “Manor food (8)” by RASweetness is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0