Covid-19 commentary: Lockdown impacts on labour and distribution of fresh produce

Never forget that UK imports 30% of its food from EU27, of which 76% are vegetables and 40% are seeds and nuts, a good proportion of which comes in over the winter months before the UK harvests kick in.

Never forget, either, that fresh fruit and vegetables, particularly vegetables, are a major source of the nutrients necessary for a healthy life — even more important when we’re threatened by the Covid-19 virus.

Fresh fruit and veg comes to us via different supply systems. These are three of them:

  1. Produce going to the major supermarkets
  2. Produce for small supermarkets and corner shops
  3. Produce for the restaurant/catering trade

Until a week or so ago, eating out was a major part of our lives. And it stopped, overnight. This is one of the reasons why supermarkets have had such a tough time. Footfall is some 30% higher as we’re buying so much more of the food we eat from them.

Within days, that supply system serving the catering trade reconfigured.

Some was diverted to the retailers. Some went to higher sales for online takeaway services. Some restaurants/caterers, such as Birmingham’s Carters of Moseley and Little Blackford, set up on-line boxed produce for local household buyers.

Inevitably given the perishability of so much fresh produce in the catering supply system, there has been considerable wastage.

Retailers have managed to supply customers with fresh fruit and vegetables. Customers have been making wise choices; the sales of root vegetables (which last longer) and citrus fruits (for the same reason, plus its vitamin C content).

The current issue is not one of having enough food; it’s one of logistics; of getting the food to thee and me.

Reports suggest, however, that there will be restrictions on supplies very soon. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), in this excellent presentation by their Chief Economist, Maximo Torero Cullen echoes what I’ve heard within the UK fresh produce sector, namely, their supply chains look set to be disrupted in April/May.

  • Among other matters, he makes the obvious if chilling point that countries who depend on food imports will be worst affected, and those with volatile exchange rates, such as the £-sterling, already battered by Brexit (yes, that’s still set to happen according to the due process of the law . . . )

Already:

  • The lockdown across the world means a reduction in the labour force, from picker to packager to retail shelf-stacker.
    • The difficulties of social distancing; many planters, pickers and packers are bussed in and out. Moreover, many work environments are designed for people to work physically close to each other.
      • The requirement for one driver in the cab, rather than two of them, means produce from, for example, Spain or Italy takes 24-36 hours longer to reach the UK.
    • Additionally, the necessary subsidising of incomes might well exacerbate the situation. Workers are likely to ask themselves, why work and expose myself and my family to Covid-19 when I don’t have to?
    • Here in the UK, some of the farm labour issues might be met by fit young people who are otherwise unemployed, especially those who slip through the net of the various Government financial packets. But (and it’s a big BUT):
      • To give an indication of the challenge, however, listen to Tim O’Malley of Nationwide Produce plc (based in Spalding) in this Beanstalk Global webcast of 24th March. Lots of facts’n’stats + info on the system and what’s happening to it . . . including the point that a Romanian seasonal worker can pick 35kg of strawberries per hour.
      • Harvesting UK crops require some 80K seasonal workers who, under “normal” circumstances, travel from place to place.
  • The logistics challenges within the UK include:
    • On-line delivery to people’s homes is only 7% of household spend, and retailers are scrabbling to increase capacity. (This fruitbox podcast explains the part China’s well-developed home delivery services play in keeping the population fed.)
    • The surges in demand, caused by consumers reasonably buying more due to anticipated  plus the switch from eating out to eating at home, inevitably led to blockages in depots and packhouses. (See stats in Kantar’s Joe Shaw Roberts contribution in this webcast.)

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The rate of change that’s happened and is happening was summed up by Minor Weir and Willis’ Steve Swain in The Grocer article, “Everything changes by the minute and not the hour or the day.”

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If all you do with the FAO’s Chief Economist presentation: Coronavirus: Food supply chain under strain. What to do?, do take heed of this page:

 

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See also:

  1. This article from The Grocer: Global coronavirus lockdowns set to hit vegetable supplies. Includes an assessment by Steve Swain from Birmingham-based fresh produce wholesaler, Minor Weir and Willis
  2. Fruitnet’s new podcast series called FRUITBOX: Episode 1 (24th March) and Episode 2 (26th March)
  3. Beanstalk Global’s webcast on 24th March here. It featured Tim O’Malley of Nationwide Produce, Kantor’s Joseph Shaw Roberts, Chair of the Food Authenticity Network, Sterling Crew, food safety expert and nutritionalist, Barbara Bray (who is also on our Panel of Experts).

And all the above took place less than 10 days after our first blogpost about the impact of Covid-19 on our food supplies . . .

And we still have Brexit looming along with its restrictions on UK food trade and access to workers . . . And  climate change, and its impact on food security, hasn’t gone away either.

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The Birmingham Food Council is a Community Interest Company registered in England and Wales number 8931789