Life

Behind the Scenes of Britain's Food Supply

As supermarkets work to keep up with increased demand, we spoke to the people keeping Britain fed through the pandemic.
16 April 2020, 8:30am
How Coronavirus Is Impacting Britain's Food Supply
Photo by Christopher Bethell.

Pre-coronavirus, I used to love shopping for groceries. Whether it was spending hours at a farmer’s market choosing the perfectly ripe tomato or just popping to the corner shop for a Magnum, purchasing food was carefree and fun. (Remember fun?) Now, getting your supplies for the week is an anxiety-inducing experience. Toilet roll stockpiling is the norm, flour has become like gold dust thanks to the sourdough bros, and eggs are basically non-existent.

Three weeks into the coronavirus lockdown and while some supermarkets have introduced purchase limits on key products and panic buying appears to be on the decline, Britain’s food supply chain is still adapting to the pandemic. And with no end to the lockdown in sight, it will be many months before the country returns to normal – including the way in which we produce and consume food.

Days before lockdown began – when panic buying was at its peak – three food and environmental policy professors sent an open letter to the Prime Minister, voicing their “immediate concern” about the “emerging food crisis” unfolding in response to coronavirus. They wrote that unclear public messaging about food supply had encouraged people to stockpile items from supermarkets, and that those on low incomes were anxious about how to feed themselves. It also argued that government consultation on food had “so far been dominated by an industry focus” rather than the needs of the public, and called for a health-based food rationing scheme.

“Bluntly put, in my view, it’s a public health disaster,” Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City, University of London and co-author of the open letter, tells me. “The British government has destroyed the food service sector and has transferred it over to the already very powerful and wealthy food retailing sector, which is very concentrated,” he adds, referring to Britain's nine major supermarkets, including the “big four” of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrissons, which dominate the sector.

While lockdown has decimated the hospitality industry, with restaurants and bars forced to close or adapt their offering to delivery-only, UK supermarkets have seen a 20.5 percent jump in sales.

“When the British were told not to eat out, they went to the supermarkets, then were criticised for stockpiling,” says Lang, who is also author of the recently published book Feeding Britain Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them. “It wasn't stockpiling, it's called having a larder, which was something I had when I was a child. In public health terms, the most important is fruit, vegetables and horticulture. This is a time when there should be a massive planting increase, but instead the industry is talking about reducing planting.”

This reduction is partly down to the fact that farms are struggling to recruit agricultural workers. The coronavirus crisis has meant that seasonal labourers – many of whom come to the UK from Eastern Europe – are now legally unable to travel here for work, or understandably unwilling to risk their health to do so. Huge quantities of milk are at risk of being discarded and fruit and vegetables may be left to rot in fields, with farm labour charity Concordia warning that a third of Britain's food harvest could go to waste. Meanwhile farmers who had supplied the hospitality industry now find themselves with surplus stock, as restaurants shutter and cancel their orders.

“We've had to figure out how we can support the farmers where demand for their product has been decreasing,” says Franco Fubini, chief executive of Natoora, a sustainable fruit and vegetable supplier. “With a shift from eating out to eating in, initially there have been food shortages happening on certain lines and supply chains not functioning at 100 percent. Also, things like peas and broad beans are products that we sell a lot to restaurants, but don't sell really well to home and they don't sell nearly the same high quantities.”

While the National Farmers Union has called on the government to assist the agricultural sector during the coronavirus crisis, community-run organisations are also stepping in to try and support Britain’s food supply chain. Earlier this month, Cathy St. Germans, co-founder of Port Eliot Festival in Cornwall, launched Farms to Feed Us. The initiative connects small scale farmers who now find themselves with surplus produce due to restaurant closures, directly with customers. Despite only launching last Saturday, its digital database includes over 200 farmers, producers and small-scale suppliers across the country, as well as information on the produce each farm offers and its delivery options. The database has been viewed nearly 5,000 times.

“As the crisis took hold and food became such a paramount issue, I knew I needed to help within my kind of network and community of farmers and growers,” says St. Germans. “The crisis that they were facing when restaurants disappeared, I was also aware that some of those farmers and producers were changing their route to markets. This was a way to support what those farmers and producers were doing.”

Farms to Feed Us is also working with sustainable farming organisations such as Pasture for Life and Biodynamic Association to ensure that the database is shared as widely as possible in the farming community. “People are saying that they now know about farms or produce in their community they didn't know existed before,” St. Germans says. “The resilient food and farming network that exists in this country, this group of diverse producers ensures the supply chain is flowing straight from the fields and the database is a way of helping people access that.”

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It’s easy to see why Farms to Feed Us is already proving popular among consumers. With queues outside supermarkets and empty shelves, many of us are now looking for ways to skip the middleman and order direct from the supplier. Organic fruit and vegetable boxes have seen an unprecedented rise in demand since the start of the crisis, with Abel & Cole reporting a 25 percent increase in orders. Natoora is also responding to this demand, offering wholesale produce it would have delivered to London restaurants direct to customers homes instead.

“It’s been quite remarkable and we’ve had tremendous feedback,” says Fubini. “It hasn’t been easy, there’s been a lot of work and challenges behind the scenes, but hopefully this will make how we access food more palatable and a better experience for retail.”

Of course, organic fruit and vegetable boxes and initiatives such as Farms to Feed Us are far less accessible for those on low incomes. Lang notes that the coronavirus crisis leaves huge swathes of the population without access to basic necessities. “Food banks are closing, and those remaining open have supply shortages yet rocketing demands,” he says. “Some very hungry people are being ‘gate-kept’ out of food banks because systems for allocating vouchers are failing. You can't just leave them to sink or swim, or in the hands of people who are well networked and those with money. It needs to be organised from the bottom-up at the local level.”

The coronavirus crisis will impact Britain’s food supply chain for many months to come. It highlights the importance of the country’s farmers and labourers who work to harvest and process the food we rely on. Perhaps it can also be an opportunity to strengthen links with those who produce our food, and create a better food supply chain that works for everyone.

@Angela_Hui

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