Covid-19 commentary: Coming out of lockdown: An account of food supply system fragilities

Things could have been worse, much worse. Nonetheless, lockdowns across the world have exposed serious fragilities in the UK food supply system:

  • The fragility of the UK’s  just-in-time (JIT) supply system was masked by Brexit stockpiling over the preceding months.
    • And we were lucky that, to date, the UK didn’t experience the challenges of some unexpected pinch point event such as CO2 shortages, or a major incident in the Dover Straits.
  • Most importantly, many learned that the UK has no buffer food capacity in the event of crisis.
  • And there aren’t any national or regional contingency plans for what to do when the supply system is significantly disrupted.
  • Moreover, neither the commercial nor the third sector is equipped, individually or collectively, to respond to the many millions who have not been able to access food.
  • Nor do they have the the capacity and associated distribution systems to supply workers and  others in need of healthy meals.
  • There were, and still are capacity and price issues with sea and air-freighted produce.
  • The shutdown of food services (hospitality, catering services, restaurants, cafes, et al) led to a 30% capacity loss, which was and still translates into a huge and continuing challenge to get sufficient supplies safe, nutritious food to everyone in urban areas.
    • Some of this capacity loss will be permanent, and will effect the whole of the food network from farm to fork.
    • The effect of the economic fall-out from loss of food service business, exacerbated by many office workers who may continue to work from and eat at home rather than in city and town centres has dramatically changed their food scapes. 
  • Pre-Covid worker precarity across the sector has now magnified through significant job losses in the hospitality sector.
  • As with any crisis, the biggest issue is logistics and distribution, here most dramatically shown by the lack of connectivity between the B2B system (business to business food service) and that for B2C (business to customers in the major supermarkets).
  • Lack of investment in digital technologies for food distribution, plus other limits to capacity for on-line food retail and take-away delivery.
    • For the latter, this includes costly delivery charges, yet another driver on lower food quality.
  • The effects of loosening regulations and associated non-compliance, aided by ‘virtual’ auditing, will lead to increased food fraud, unsafe food, agri-labour shortages and worker exploitation.
    • It looks increasingly unlikely all the regulations will be be put back in place with Brexit and  the new Agriculture Bill.
  • With all the above, plus the urgency of distribute food, corporate triple bottom line commitments have come in a poor second place.

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