How will coronavirus disrupt the British food system?

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Coronavirus has already exposed the lack of resiliency in our just-in-time supply system. A small change in shopping behaviour led to empty supermarket shelves. The right wing media has been busy blaming ‘selfish people’ for hoarding, but the truth is supermarket income has only risen 16% with people buying just a few extra items each. Some people will be hoarding, for sure, but when people have to prepare to self-isolate for two weeks, and now need to consume more meals at home, there is naturally going to be an increased demand at the supermarket. The just-in-time supply system prioritises supermarket profit over national resiliency.

But that’s a demand-side issue that can be rectified through clearer communications from government, social awareness, rationing and eventually everyone’s bought enough pasta and rice. Supermarkets are said to have enough food in the warehouses — but there is currently a bottleneck in distribution. All of that is relatively easy to overcome.

But what happens when there is lack of supply? What happens when countries stop exporting? What happens when farmers and pickers get sick? What happens when people get stuck at home in isolation and run out of money for food? What happens if looting of supermarkets starts?

“The present disruption of the British food system unveils the contradictions that characterise an unsustainable food system,” remarked Valentina Pesarin, a graduate of Food Policy MSc from City University, London.


Already there are reports of countries limiting exports of key foods. Kazakhstan, one of the world’s largest exports of wheat flour, is reported to have banned exports of wheat flour, buckwheat, sunflower oil, sugar and some vegetables. Vietnam, the world’s third largest rice exporter, has temporarily suspended rice exports, to check they have sufficient domestic supplies to last the crisis.

But we’re only at the beginning of the crisis, and who knows where it will go? What happens when large numbers of workers in the polytunnels of Andalucia and Morocco become ill with CoVid-19 or have to self-isolate? What happens if there are less drivers to transport those goods? The average age of farmers in most wealthy nations is high, what happens if we lose tens of thousands across Europe to the disease? How will that affect supply?

Given that the UK only produces around half of its own food, and imports the vast majority of fruit and veg, these concerns are of supreme significance. Further, most of our livestock depend on imported feed — what if there are restrictions that reduce access to animal feed?

“Borders are closing, lorries are being slowed down and checked. We only produce 53% of our own food in the UK. It’s a failure of government to plan.” said Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, London.


“The official line has been that it’s all seamless and would be fine if only stupid consumers would stop panic buying. It is not,” he said. “The just in time system is breaking. Government were only talking to a narrow range of people in industry rather than local authorities and community groups, who know where vulnerable people are.” Prof. Tim Lang.

In an interview with Jay Rayner in the Guardian, Tim Lang, a world food policy expert and author of Feeding Britain, is asked what impact the coronavirus crisis might have on the food system.

“It could prove a good reminder of the value of state institutions,” he says. And the emptying of shelves as a result of panic buying may help people to “think about where their food comes from”. He adds: “We need to move from a ‘me’ food culture to a ‘we’ food culture.”


The government communications strategy throughout the coronavirus so far has been confusing and characterised by U-turns after severe public pressure. This is no different when we look at the public messaging we’ve received about food supplies. The government has been condemning panic-buyers, but has remained typically laissez-faire in its approach — rejecting thus far the idea of rationing despite supplies of many basics being non-existent for many.

Three British food policy academics wrote a letter to the government criticising its communications and suggesting a plan of action. They have suggested:

  1. A health based rationing system
  2. Ensure those on low-incomes have access to a healthy diet in the form of cash injection via Universal Credit and a national voucher scheme
  3. Ensure nutritionally appropriate food can be delivered to those in self-isolation and quarantine
  4. Announce immediately that this rationing scheme will be equitable and based on health-needs.
  5. Amend the new Agriculture Bill to ensure people are fed well, healthily, equitably and sustainably


What about the Food Banks that now supply more than 1.5million people in the UK? At a time of increased demand due to the economic effects of coronavirus, food bank donations are down 40%. Volunteer numbers are also down as many of the volunteers were older and are now in isolation. How are we going to keep supplies flowing to the food banks? How are we going to distribute supplies to those in isolation? Morrisons supermarket are going to distribute £10 million worth of food to food banks in the next few months.

In Sicily, there are a few reports of people looting supermarkets, as some people just haven’t got enough money to buy food — supermarkets in Palermo are now being patrolled by police. Long periods of ‘lockdown’ are leading to people running out of food. Italy is planning to spend 400 million Euros on supplying food and food stamps to help people who don’t have enough money to buy food.

Will we see the same in this country, if, as discussed recently, social distancing lasts six months or more.

Farm bankruptcies

Milk prices are down already and dairy farmers are facing a delay in payment from dairy processors. Many dairy farms are already teetering on the brink of bankruptcy as it is. This crisis will only increase the number of bankruptcies in in the dairy industry. How will this affect the British dairy industry?

There is a warning that a third of the fruit and vegetable harvest might go to waste, due to labour shortage, which will have a knock-on financial effect on affected farms.

The shutdown of the British hospitality and tourism sectors will have significant knock-on effects for the bottom lines of farms across the country. There are less coffee shops buying milk, less restaurants buying salad, and less tourists means less demand for British produce.


The UK is facing a shortage of 80,000 seasonal workers. Fruit, salad and vegetables all need pickers, and those pickers usually come from Bulgaria and Romania. In many ways, this is a live rehearsal of what we were expecting with Brexit and the new punitive immigrations laws, except that ‘rehearsal’ comes amidst a global crisis.

At this time of year, Matt Stanton would normally be preparing to welcome 70 to 80 Romanian seasonal workers to harvest asparagus on his family farm in Kent, south-east England. This year, he is expecting seven. Reports the Financial Times.

However, the problem is even graver than the one we faced due to Brexit, as there is now an acute shortage of workers across Europe. Germany needs 300,000 seasonal workers. France needs 800,000.

There are calls from the Landworkers’ Alliance (LWA), the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), and The Countryside Land and Business Association (CLA) for a ‘land army’ of volunteers and unemployed people to head to the fields and help harvest the nation’s produce.

It must also be recognised that there will be a severe shortage of skills, and whilst fruit-picking might sound simple, it does require skill and stamina. It will take several weeks to train people, and harvests are soon starting for some crops like asparagus. We have castigated this essential job of ‘fruit picker’ — but it is a skilled job, despite what our society says of it. Picking, grading, sorting and packing, all requires knowledge and experience, and a lot of stamina and ability to work in all weather, for little pay.

The LWA are calling for four actions, including financial support to small farmers, that are too small to receive subsidy payments, to help them weather this crisis, after an already bad winter of severe flooding. Along with calls for a modest investment in small-scale, local, resilient food and farming networks. They also call for a new fund to help aid the food chain — from supporting abattoirs and food processing facilities, to investing in online platforms and food delivery services.

Jyoti Fernandes from the Landworkers Alliance said:

“This crisis highlights the vulnerability of our globalised food system, which in coming years will only get worse if we don’t invest in building a resilient, diverse, local food system. We demand immediate and significant government action to ensure everyone can access healthy affordable food.”


In recent times, complacency is the word that sums up Britain’s response to the colder realities of the material world. We’re about to find out that relying on other countries to provide the bulk of our food is dangerous during a global crisis.

Prof. Tim Lang has been warning us for years, but the UK no longer respects experts with decades of experience and knowledge. We’d rather listen to empty rhetoric from populist politicians.

But rhetoric doesn’t put food on the table. Farmers, growers, pickers, food processors, retailers and delivery drivers put food on the table.

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