Most of us take the food we eat for granted. We buy what we want, when we want and rarely think about where that food comes from, who produces it or how it reaches us. Well, that’s how it used to be. The Covid-19 crisis has changed all that, just like it’s changed everything else.
Empty supermarket shelves and media reports of dairy farmers pouring milk down the drain have brought farming and food supply chains to the attention of the public in an unprecedented way. This spring was “the first time in generations that government or society was worried about where their food came from,” says Tom Bradshaw, vice president of the National Union of Farmers (NUF). “We should never have put society in that position.”
The supermarket food shortages we experienced at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic – fresh meat and produce, milk, eggs, bread and flour – were not down to an “absolute shortage” of these items, says Liz Bowles, head of farming at the Soil Association, which campaigns for sustainable farming and land use. There is enough food in the system – whether harvested in this country or imported from abroad – to meet the needs of British households.
Where the problem lay – and where it remains for a handful of still elusive products such as flour – is what Bowles refers to as the “mismatch” between the requirements of the two sides of the food supply chain. In the normal course of things, the average Brit spends around 67 per cent of their annual food budget on food prepared and eaten at home, and 33 per cent on eating out, according to data from the Office of National Statistics. Unsurprisingly, the near total shutdown of the hospitality industry and catering trade has had a big impact on those numbers.
Shortages occurred, Bowles explains, because “it wasn’t possible to rapidly change the formatting of products to supply into a different market”. Flour, for example, is packed into 25kg bags for the wholesale market, while supermarkets require it in much smaller quantities. And when it comes to meat, we tend to want different joints when we eat out to when we’re cooking for ourselves.
Every point in the food supply chain – farmers and processors, wholesalers and retailers – has experienced major stress as a result of the pandemic but “ultimately it’s the producer who’s bearing the brunt of the responsibility”, says Bradshaw. “The farmer has to go on producing the milk – you can’t just furlough a cow.”
Farmers are taking advantage of government support packages including business loans and grants to cover lost income, plus the relaxation of competition rules to enable food products to be diverted from wholesale to retail. But even now that the first shock of the pandemic has passed, there’s still massive uncertainty around a number of issues affecting farmers.
How the opening up of the hospitality sector will impact demand is one big unknown. How fruit and vegetable growers will be able to recruit enough workers for this year’s harvest is another. The sector usually employs around 80,000 seasonal workers, most of them Eastern European. Bradshaw estimates that roughly 25 per cent are based in the UK all year round and will therefore be available to work this harvest. The government’s ‘Pick for Britain’ recruitment drive might see the proportion of Brits taking on these jobs go from 1 per cent to 25 per cent, he says. But that still leaves a big gap to be filled by overseas workers whose path to work is currently blocked by foreign lockdowns, air travel bans and quarantine rules. Add to that the costs associated with meeting social distancing regulations, and UK growers are in for a tough year.
Bradshaw would like to see greater protections for farmers to help them weather storms like this. One route could be requiring processors to honour agreements to buy from farmers even in cases of drops in demand. Another option, suggests Chris Rose, the commercial controller of Asplins which represents 12 fruit growers across the UK, is government subsidies for particular crops. “We’ve got used to cheap food. If we want to have a healthy diet we should stop any form of subsidising unhealthy food and start subsidising healthy food,” he says. “The quid pro quo is that growers shouldn’t expect to get very wealthy on growing subsidised products. If we’re taking the risk away, the total gain may be less but many farmers would prefer that.”
Rose isn’t the only industry figure concerned about the low price of food. “We have the third or fourth cheapest food in the world as a percentage of income,” says Bradshaw. “The question I would ask is, ‘is anyone paying the true cost of that food production?’” We may be paying less at the checkout but “we pay in other ways, through cleaning our water of agricultural chemicals, income support for those on low wages”, says Danny Fisher, manager of Better Food Shed (BFS), a non-profit wholesale business that supplies mainly local, sustainably farmed produce to 10 vegetable box schemes in London. “The supermarket system doesn’t take that into account.”
The farms that supply BFS, most of which are small scale and operate a more environmentally and socially sustainable mixed farming model, have been largely immune to the negative impacts of the pandemic. Traditional mixed farming relies on year-round rather than seasonal labour, and the short supply chains that these farms sell through have shown themselves to be more resilient than the long and complicated supply chains associated with supermarkets. “The more elements there are in a supply chain, for one of those to go wrong puts the whole chain out of kilter,” Bowles explains.
Traditional farming isn’t a panacea for all the ills of the agricultural system, advocates of this model are quick to point out. Short, localised supply chains – from small retailers to vegetable box schemes – did well as an alternative to overwhelmed supermarkets when the pandemic hit, but they “could never have coped if everybody had gone to them”, says Bowles. Fisher agrees: “If you took big farms out of the game it would all grind to a halt.”
Shifting more of the focus onto smaller scale mixed farming and more localised supply chains would be a monumental undertaking. The consolidation of food supply chains over the last 25 years has seen the loss of the “mosaic of infrastructure” required to process large volumes of food locally, says Bowles. Yet many believe there’s an appetite among consumers for a more sustainable farming and supply chain system.
“One of the real positives out of this is that a lot of people have started cooking from scratch rather than buying ready meals, and genuinely there’s been a reconnection with food and [an awareness of] the vulnerability of that food,” says Bradshaw.
Whether or not we’re ready to embrace a big change in the way that we farm, shop and eat, it seems that something has got to give. “Even though this pandemic is horrendous, by comparison to the challenge of climate change, it’s potentially nothing,” says Bowles. “We need to go back to thinking about what does ‘good’ look like, not just in terms of cost but in nutrient density and in the impact of production on our climate, our health, our soil and our biodiversity. It’s a new way of looking at our food production.”