Covid-19 commentary: Will there be shortages? HMG need prepare for the worst (while hoping for the best)

The Government appears unprepared for food shortages and scarcities. They need to act. And fast. Preparedness is everything before a crisis hits.

Warning signs of impending shortages are widely reported:

  • UK reduction in food processing and packing capacity
    On Friday 3rd April, The Grocer reported that ‘upwards of 50 food factories’ in Scotland have shut their doors since the crisis began’ owing to cashflow problems and fears over worker safety, and a resulting surge in absenteeism. This is happening across the UK. Yet:

    • We need more not less processing and packaging capacity in the food sector. So any closures threaten having sufficient supplies of food.
    • Remember, too, that many supply factory lines cannot easily be switched on after closure. Food hygiene practices are essential to ensure food safety — the last thing the UK needs in this crisis is an outbreak of food poisoning.
      • This situation has been made worse by the Government making compulsory procurements of masks, gloves, etc designed for the food sector, now diverted to the NHS.
  • A question for Government: What should our limited manufacturing capacity be producing?
    Moreover, hard choices need to be made, too, on what our food factories should be producing, given almost certain shortages of fresh fruit and veg over the coming few weeks — and perhaps lasting for most of the year with knock-on consequences for the 2021 growing season.

    • e.g. Should facilities be used for, say, the manufacture of cream cakes or crisps, or reconfigured to produce more nutritious food products, such as fortified, good quality bread?
    • These decisions have to come from the Government.
      • The commercial food sector is not equipped to make these decisions.

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We reported less than a week ago that the global lockdown was already having a big impact on fresh produce labour and distribution. The issues have been further exacerbated.

  • Shortages of primary products — not just fresh fruit’n’veg, perhaps also cereal staples
    • Many  national governments have stopped food exports. Countries such as the UK, which heavily depend on food imports, are therefore particularly vulnerable to shortages.
    • The UK is entering the ‘hungry month’, when the southern European season ends, notably in Spain, and the UK produce isn’t ready. What usually happens is that
      • Our season is likely to start late because of the floods in the winter and early spring.
    • Even without governmental restrictions, it’s proving difficult to move both goods and people across borders, affecting both seasonal workers arriving in the UK, and fresh producer supplies (often carried in the hold of a passenger aircracft) and
      • On Farming Today on 4th April, one farmer said they had a mere 13/100 workers needed, another said they’ve chartered two planes to bring in Bulgarian workers, but still had a shortage of some 300/1000 people).
        • Note: An experienced worker can pick 35kg strawberries per hour; see this Beanstalk Global webinar.
          The notion that strong, willing young UK students or the recently laid off can fill the gap doesn’t take account of the time it takes to acquire the relevant skills.

And it’s not just fresh produce. It’s calorie staples like wheat and spuds:

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Prices will rise. And because of lay-offs and furloughing workers, increasing numbers of people will not have the money to buy the sufficient supplies of safe, nutritious food they and their families need.

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The food sector cannot withstand another shock. And Brexit would provide one. Already there is talk of a much longer transition, perhaps five years . . . or that Brexit will not happen.

See this Beanstalk Global webinar, from 34’30” into, to 39′.
Yes, it is me at the start of the extract, but it’s also what Ton Christiaanse says in response to my words. too.

Also following that exchange, there was  a question to me about self-sufficiency. Nope, that’s a not feasible and, anyway, not desirable as we need options if local harvests fail. Nonetheless,  it is a moot point about how much food we should import, and how much is UK-grown.

The National Food Strategy needs a revisit.

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In the next blogpost, I’ll outline what food production and supply the Government should be prioritising.

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On 31st March there was a joint statement by the Directors-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the UN World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which included these words:

When acting to protect the health and well-being of their citizens, countries should ensure that any trade-related measures do not disrupt the food supply chain. Such disruptions including hampering the movement of agricultural and food industry workers and extending border delays for food containers, result in the spoilage of perishables and increasing food waste. Food trade restrictions could also be linked to unjustified concerns on food safety. If such a scenario were to materialize, it would disrupt the food supply chain, with particularly pronounced consequences for the most vulnerable and food insecure populations.

Uncertainty about food availability can spark a wave of export restrictions, creating a shortage on the global market. Such reactions can alter the balance between food supply and demand, resulting in price spikes and increased price volatility. We learned from previous crises that such measures are particularly damaging for low-income, food-deficit countries and to the efforts of humanitarian organizations to procure food for those in desperate need.

We must prevent the repeat of such damaging measures. It is at times like this that more, not less, international cooperation becomes vital. In the midst of the COVID-19 lockdowns, every effort must be made to ensure that trade flows as freely as possible, specially to avoid food shortage. Similarly, it is also critical that food producers and food workers at processing and retail level are protected to minimise the spread of the disease within this sector and maintain food supply chains. Consumers, in particular the most vulnerable, must continue to be able to access food within their communities under strict safety requirements. ”

 

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