Amid all the turmoil and flux even at these early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, we strongly recommend decision-makers at a national and local level keep in mind these six important points about our food supplies:
1. The Westminster Government has the ultimate responsibility to ensure all the UK population has access to sufficient supplies of safe, nutritious food
. . . as laid out by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and emphasised again in the Rome Declaration on World Food Security in 1996 — and reiterated by us in our submission to the National Food Strategy Call for Evidence.
Note and hold in mind the four words in bold italics:
access, sufficient, safe and nutritious
2. Over 99% of what UK citizens eat and drink comes to us via the commercial food industry
This will not change with Covid-19.
Therefore do not get sidelined into supposing that World War II-type exhortations to dig for victory are relevant. Grow Your Own (GYO) has many benefits, but as far as supplying a population with the food they need, it was irrelevant and unhelpful before Covid-19 (for an explanation, see here). And still is.
The major challenges for you are:
- Shortages of fresh fruit and vegetables
- Before Corvid, of the 30% food imports from the EU, 76% were fresh vegetables, and just over 40% of fruit and nuts.
- No-one knows what the impact will be on these supplies with restrictions on ports, and on people’s movements (or the desire of truck drivers to stay near their families).
- Fruit and veg are a major source of the nutrients we need.
- Nutritious food is far more expensive than unhealthy food anyway (see section 6 below).
- And prices are rising, and will rise more, possibly suddenly and steeply.
- We’re all aware of the rise of people being hungry over the last few years, the work of food banks, staffed in large part by volunteers many of whom are elderly and/or with underlying medical conditions.
- The numbers of hungry people who will not have enough money to feed themselves, already too high, will rise, possibly dramatically without Government intervention.
- It’s vital that, asap, everyone in the UK is given, via earnings or the State, enough money for the basics of survival, shelter, warmth, food and water.
Think: access, sufficient, safe and nutritious
To keep up with the huge changes happening in the food sector because of Covid-19, follow:
- Our frequent updates on what’s happening
- Trade journals, such as The Grocer, and the Food Manufacturer.
- Trade organisations from the British Retail Consortium to the FTA (logistics) to the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health. (At the time of writing, neither the NFU nor the Food and Drink Federation are commenting on the situation, though I’d expect they will soon.)
In summary: It is vital the Government ensures enough safe, nutritious food to be fairly distributed at all times, especially so with Covid-19 when shortages and scarcities are inevitable.
Inevitable? All of the above is in the context of the following as well as Covid-19:
SECTIONS BELOW ARE BACKGROUND INFO
3: The global competition for food
In this context, remember the UK imports 40-50% of our food supplies, the higher figure when harvests are poor as they’re likely to be in the coming year because of the recent floods and there are grave challenges to our food supplies anyway in the event of a hard or no-deal Brexit:
The risk and resilience planning in the UK with regard to the food system nationally, if extant, is not in the public domain. Locally, it is non-existent. Hence our development of The Game.
In addition to Covid-19, the recent floods and the prospect of a hard or no deal Brexit, none of the factors outlined in our January 2018 report Global Risks to UK Food Supplies have gone away, nor those in our horizon scanning project report of 2017, Back from the Future.
4: The scale of what it takes to feed a population — as illustrated in this cheery little video:
See also this blogpost on the scale needed for our five-a-day and this one, Loaves don’t grow on trees, about where most of our calories come from, and why a failure to deliver or, as importantly, ensure delivery of calories to a population leads to social unrest. within a few days.
5: The complexity of the food supply network — as illustrated in this simplified map of the fresh produce supply chain, set to music of course:
For something about the nature of complex adaptive systems, see this blogpost about it with regard to the food system, also this one about our ‘small world’ friendship patterns which, of course, illuminate aspects of the Covid-19 spread.
Moreover, it’s not for nothing, complexity science is called the science of surprise. Expect the unexpected. (1)
6: The good, the bad & the ugly within the commercial food industry.
I reiterate: 99.99% of what we eat comes from the commercial food industry.
Don’t knock it. The commercial sector does a brilliant job in providing tens of millions in the UK, and billions across the world with the means to survive. And, as importantly, releases us from the drudgery of subsistence farming and the perils of local harvest failure.
Some corporations, however, are not in the business of making and promoting nutritious food per se, at a huge cost to our health and well-being and to the environment.
Poor diet contributes to ill-health at the best of times.
We recommend now, as we did before this crisis, the activities of the corporations making and promoting drug foods (‘the ugly’) should be curbed, and advertising of food products carrying standard-rate VAT (if possible) prohibited now.
Drug-foods are: Sugar and sweeteners, chocolate, caffeine, savoury snacks such as crisps and alcohol. Drug food products them carry standard-rate VAT because, as well as being addictive, they have zero or close to zero nutritional value.
(1) As with the weather in these northern misty isles. Or with the science behind epidemiologists’ work. The Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and his epidemiologist colleagues around the world are more like weather forecasters than you might imagine.
The previous blogpost in this Covid-19 commentary series: The food supply network on 20th March 2020
From 19th March 2020, the photographer Paul Stringer is chronicling his family’s journey through the epidemic by uploading an image of his family’s daily evening meal to our Instagram account.