COVID19 has put a spotlight on many areas of life from our healthcare system to how we are governed. It has also provided us with an insight into the intricacies of our food systems in a way that wasn’t possible before this crisis. These are five things that stand out for us.
- People’s food behaviour can change
- We don’t all experience the same food environment
- We can’t rely on supermarkets for all of our food shopping needs
- Nature friendly farmers need us and we need them
- There is an opportunity to rebuild our food system around green principles
People’s food behaviour can change
Polling (by the Food Foundation, the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission and others) has shown that more than 19 million people say they're cooking more from scratch and 17 million are throwing away less food. 3 million have tried a veg box scheme/ ordered food from a local farm for the first time.
We don’t all experience the same food environment
Polling (again by the Food Foundation, the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission and others) has shown that 8 million adults have experienced food insecurity since the start of the lockdown. This has disproportionately affected people from BAME backgrounds, those with health problems and disabilities and those from larger households.
Research by Hubbub has shown that while 43% of people say that they are worried about the extra cost of providing food for their household, at the same time, 44% of people are enjoying cooking more since the restrictions began.
It is clear that we are not all having the same lockdown experience; this crisis has magnified what happens in normal life. This is important for Eating Better to consider as we accelerate action towards more sustainable food systems with the Better by half: roadmap.
We can’t rely on supermarkets for all of our food shopping needs
The food shortages that people have experienced with empty shelves in supermarkets aren’t primarily an issue of lack of supply, but distribution has played a big part. Supermarkets have played an important role in getting food to people during this time, but issues with access to food have highlighted our over reliance on them and lack of diversification in food shopping.
The fact that COVID19 came at the same time as the UK ‘hunger gap’ was unfortunate, and our reliance on EU farm workers to grow our food and our over reliance on international supply chains only made matters worse. Just-in-time centralised distribution systems, which have developed alongside the move to supermarket shopping resulted in less food being on the shelves. People stocked up from supermarkets as other outlets such as restaurants and cafes closed and concerns about lack of access to food grew.
This centralised approach to shopping meant that the hard-working supermarket employees couldn’t get food on to the shelves as quickly as it was going into shopper’s baskets. We seem to be passed this peak. The stockpiling of food has now subsided as food sales are now up 1.9% compared to 50% the week before lockdown when stockpiling began, but the lessons from the risks of such a centralised approach to food distribution should stay with us.
Now that many people have now experienced more direct food shopping such as local veg boxes, will they be so keen to return to the status quo?
Nature friendly farmers need us, and we need them
We know from our colleagues in the nature friendly farming community that COVID19 has provided both huge opportunities, but also big problems.
The Pasture Fed Livestock Association have told us that their approach to farming has never felt more relevant yet many of their farmers are struggling with supply chain issues and dwindling restaurant sales. They are currently calling for your views as they reassess their strategic direction.
Martin Lines, chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN), has said: ‘There are farmers with food to sell, but many of the usual supply chains are closed. There are farmers with produce to harvest, but a lack of workers to make this happen. We urgently need to support farmers to connect with the public so they can sell their produce without the food going to waste.’
‘Many NFFN farmers are changing the way they supply the food they produce, and are marketing directly to the public, through local supply chains or online.’ Find out more here.
There is an opportunity to rebuild our food system around green principles
It is clear that following COVID19 and lockdown, there will be a need to rebuild the UK as well as the global economy. While we have been in lockdown the opportunity to rebuild the economy around green principles is becoming increasingly attractive. The pressing need to do this hasn’t gone anywhere.
As thoughts turn to 'firing up the engines of this vast UK economy,' food production and distribution will be central to this. The agri-food sector is a sizeable part of the UK economy, in 2018 it contributed £121.0 billion or 9.4% to national Gross Value Added. But let’s not rebuild our economy and our agri-food sector on the same foundations as previously, ignoring the warning signs about the lack of resilience that were already there.
It is the time to end subsidies to industrial agriculture, where the full environmental, health, animal welfare and human costs are not fully accounted for and instead support nature friendly food production.
Now is the time to strengthen our food systems as well as the wider economy based on resilient, green and equitable principles.
This article was written by Mark Breen, Communications Associate at Eating Better.