Food System Transformation #11: Covid-19 and its impact on the food supply network

We’re facing an unimaginable ‘food system transformation’ as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. What can we learn from what is happening already?

Some general points

  • Acting on science from experts is critical.
  • Competent government, informed by evidence, is also critical in a crisis.
  • Equally important, a population needs to have faith in the competence, integrity and transparency of their government.
  • Preparing for a crisis before it happens, as Singapore has done, is important.
  • Societies can and do mobilise instantly and globally to a common danger. Their ability to act fast is proven, again.

Economic impact

  • The dramatic economic downturn will continue for months, if not years. Nearly all of us are already a lot poorer; we will be poorer still for some time, if not for decades to come.
  • Without government intervention, the poorest amongst us will be disproportionately affected:
    • Hence, unless that are rapidly implemented changes in social policy (as is happening in Denmark), risks to health and wellbeing will not be equally shared. If there are deep, long-lasting inequalities, the distressing impacts on so many households will have social consequences.
      • Unexpected failures in food distribution lasting more than a day or two leads to sudden, dramatic changes in social behaviours (see The Game).
      • note too: Food bank provision depends on volunteers, all of whom will be personally affected, many of whom are elderly and/or have underlying medical conditions.
  • If Covid-19 leads to a collapse of the global economy, then as @FrancoisBalloux points out here, far more lives will be lost than Covid-19 can ever claim.

Other points specifically relevant to our food supplies

  • As we said in our submission to the National Food Strategy, it is the Government’s responsibility, not that of the commercial sector, to ensure the population has access to sufficient supplies of safe, nutritious food. Do they have the systems in place for this?
  • Businesses involved in the production and distribution of safe, nutritious food operate on low to very low profit margins.
    • Many businesses, because of tight margins, are ill-equipped to respond to huge shocks, or a series of them, to their supply system. More shocks are likely soon; e.g. poor harvests later in the year owing to extreme weather events, plus the possibility of a hard Brexit.
    • The food supply system is a complex adaptive system (as, indeed, are epidemics). Multiple simultaneous shocks, even slight ones, might disrupt supplies in ways we cannot foresee.
  • An advantage of such slim margins is the flexibility of food sector businesses, a flexibility that is already being be thoroughly tested. Already we can foresee a few unexpected ‘butterfly wing’ effects (there will be more):
    • Stories coming out tell of companies helping each other, with practical stuff such as sharing line and truck capacity. They know now how vital-for-our-survival their work is. And already they’re thinking workarounds over logistics and labour . . .
    • Logistics: Will truck drivers be able to cross national borders and, even if they can, they won’t want to be stuck in quarantine or ill far from their families.
    • Labour: Who will fill the gap in seasonable labour to plant crops, and later in the year to harvest? (On that matter, farmers won’t plant if they think they won’t be able to harvest.)
  • The hospitality sector, where there are many SME and micro-businesses, has already been hit badly. Many will go bust very soon without help.
    • Freed-up labour? Helping with planting and harvest? What would that look like? What support would be needed for the individuals? How to get them from urban to agricultural areas and back home?
  • Even the largest of companies will be adversely affected if significant numbers of employees, including senior decision-makers, are off work through sickness at the same time, a likely scenario in an epidemic.
    • It is therefore important HMG has workable plans to manage food supplies in the event of scarcities and shortages, and the ethics associated with their implementation. But have they? (note: There aren’t any local plans for such an eventuality.)
  • Many (most? nearly all?) households under normal conditions operate something close to a ‘just-in-time’ food supply system, and have limited space for storing food. This feature of the food supply network, coupled with the scale of what it takes to supply food into densely populated areas (for an example, see here), is likely to lead to empty shelves, so-called “panic buying”. At a household level, however, such behaviours are more often than not based on sound rational decision-making.
    • Government planning needs to take account of demand as well as supply volatility.

An opportunity . . . 

  • Things will not go back to how they were or indeed, how any of us supposed they were.
  • Covid-19 generates serious socio-political challenges and also provides an opportunity for us to think about and exchange ideas about possible food futures.

1: The first five bullet points are taken from @AzzaardRazzouk’s thread on the lessons he hopes we’re learning from this crisis to tackle with far more urgency the #climate crisis.
2: The image at the top of this blogpost is from this Public Health England blogpost about Covid-19.


The previous blogposts in this series are:

#10: Complex adaptive systems, networks and their dynamics

#9: The role of STEM (science, technology, engineering & mathematics

#8: The geometry of the box [we need think out of]

#7: Loaves don’t grow on trees

#6: The fresh produce supply chain

#5: The scale needed for our five-a-day

#4: A new corporate order?

#3: The economic burden

#2: Close to the planet’s carrying capacity

#1: Why this blogpost series

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