Covid-19 commentary: 13 features of our pre-Covid food system . . .

Noticing and responding to the frailties and weaknesses of the pre-Covid UK food system as they’re being exposed through this crisis, will aid our recovery and enable us to be better prepared for the next one. (1) (2)

There are (at least!) thirteen features of the pre-Covid UK food system which have contributed to our lack of preparedness for this crisis:

  1. Most primary producers scrape a living from primary production. Although this is a global problem, the issue is compounded in the UK with the uncertainties of Brexit and reports that this Government is in favour of dramatically increasing food imports (whether true or not, they have not been firmly denied).
  2. Slim or even non-existent margins on fresh produce from farm to supermarket, with knock-on impacts which include the dominance of a few large companies. (3)
  3. Wages across the food sector are low, those in the hospitality sector the lowest of any other business sector. (4) There are also many others within the sector who are part of the gig economy. (5) Agriculture is also high risk for labour exploitation and modern-day slavery. (6)
  4. The retail market in England, Wales and Scotland is dominated by a few large supermarkets. Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda account for 60% of the market; Morrisons, Aldi and the Cooperative hold 20%; Iceland and Waitrose hold 15%. This dominance by only eight players leaves merely 5% for others. (7)
  5. The efficiencies of just-in-time (JIT) supply systems throughout the food network leads to agility in the face of change, as we’ve witnessed in the last few weeks). JIT efficiencies, however, mean that the system isn’t robust in the face of a big shock, as has happened in the food service sector, nor would it be if two or more minor shocks were to occur. (8)
  6. Little understanding by many decision-makers as well as the public at large about today’s food system, including its complexity (9, 10), its scale (11) and the technologies used and the levels of investment required for them. (12)
  7. Although the UK has one of the safest food systems in the world, years of under-investment in inspection and testing, and in Trading Standards are undermining our capability and capacity to tackle the growing threats to the safety, assurance and integrity of our food supplies. (13)
  8. The UK is densely populated; 85% of us live in urban areas, a higher proportion in much of England. (14) Hence distribution and logistics systems are of vital importance, including at a hyperlocal level to ensure access for all.
  9. Since 2010, there has been a huge increase in the number of people who don’t have the money to pay for food, with millions at some time dependent on charity and the voluntary sector for meals. (15) (16)
    This is despite the UK being a signatory to the Rome Declaration on World Food Security, (17) and the Government therefore having a duty to ensure all UK citizens have access to sufficient supplies of safe nutritious food; the emboldened words provide a useful framework for implementing change. (18)
  10.  Although ’empty’ calories are cheap, nutrients are not. A healthy diet, which should contain more than the recommended 5-a-day portions or fruit and vegetables, is thus more expensive than an unhealthy one. The average daily consumption is 3.8 portions. (19)
  11. Successive governments have, nonetheless, pressed for ever cheaper food, which runs counter to having a resilient supply of safe, nutritious food, especially with the global competition for safe, nutritious supples.(20)  This pressure is exerted in many ways, including what academic research is funded.
  12. Over 50% of the UK household food spend is on the so-called ‘drug-foods’ i.e. products that carry standard-rate VAT. Other than occasional consumption of these products is associated with diet-related morbidity. (21)
  13. The costs of diet-related morbidities is high and rising, potentially crippling to health service provision; these costs are mostly locally borne. (22) Moreover, they are also strongly associated with severe illness and death from Covid-19. (23)


(1) See these four recent blogposts which illustrate the rapidity of the supply network reconfiguration:
a)  15th March: Covid-19  and its impact on the food supply network
b)  20th March: The food supply network on 20th March
c)  28th March: Lockdown impacts on labour and distribution of fresh produce
d)  24th April: The food supply system into the second month of lockdown

(2) Possibilities include a resurgence of Covid-19 or a different pandemic, scarcities and shortages of food owing to the global risks of climate change, resource depletion and population pressures or an as-yet unimagined black swan event — the unfamiliar is not the same as the improbable.

(3) See sections 1, 2 and 3 of the blogpost supporting our submission to the National Food Strategy #7: A simplified fresh produce supply chain map.

(4) See Figure 5 in the Autonomy blogpost of 21st April: Unemployment during Covid-19: regional and industrial predictions.

(5) The Department of Business, Energy and Business Strategy 2018 report The characteristics of those in the gig economy reported 21% of the 2.8M people estimated to be in the gig economy provided ‘food delivery services’.

(6) Research report from the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner and the University of Nottingham Rights Lab: Agriculture and Modern Slavery Act reporting: Poor performance despite high risks. (2018)
A summary of the report findings is on the Nottingham Rights Lab here.

(7) Data from

(8) Three examples are given in this blogpost supporting our submission to the National Food Strategy #9: Three scenarios and their risks to the supply chain.

(9) And that complex systems are by their very nature opaque, and require a qualitatively different way of thinking as described in this blogpost Food System Transformation #10: Complex adaptive systems, networks and their dynamics.

(10) See the PMCC framework on page 4 of our response to the draft London Food Strategy (2018).

(11) As an example, see this (very) short video An apple a day.

(12) Current and emerging technologies are outlined in this blogpost Food System Transformation #9: The role of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics

(13) See page 6 of our response to the draft London Food Strategy (2018).

(14) For detailed figures, and comparisons with other parts of the world, see section 1 of this blogpost Food System Transformation #8: The geometry of the box [we need to think out of].

(15) Food insecurity was common pre-Covid. See, for example, this 2017 UNICEF Working Paper by Pereira et al, based on 2014-15 data, which found 20% of UK children were living in moderately or severely insecure households, with 12% in severely food insecure households, the latter the worst figure across Europe (the European average is 4%). The Children’s Future Food Inquiry (2019) estimated one in three UK children (4.1M) were living in poverty.

(16) In Birmingham, 56% of the population live in the 20% most deprived areas in the UK, and 128,655 of the city’s children aged 15 or under live in the the 10% most deprived areas. (Birmingham Public Health Intelligence, 2019)


(18) Hence our blogpost of 21st March What decision-makers need pay attention to asap.

(19) See notes 2-5 to this blogpost, Food System Transformation #5: The scale needed for our five a day

(20) See this short video interview with Parveen Mehta, Operations Director of Minor Weir and Willis about the global competition for food.

(21) See this blogpost supporting our submission to the National Food Strategy #15: Drug foods and their specific risks to the food supply system.

(22) A detailed assessment of figures is given here: Food System Transformation #3: The economic burden.

(23) Among a wealth of recent literature on the matter, see, for example, Bornstein, S.R., Dalan, R., Hopkins, D. et al. Endocrine and metabolic link to coronavirus infection. Nat Rev Endocrinol (2020):






  One thought on “Covid-19 commentary: 13 features of our pre-Covid food system . . .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *