Covid-19 commentary: Four lessons about the preparedness of the UK food supply system

As we emerge from the latest Covid lockdown, here are four lessons to learn about making the UK food supply system better prepared for future shocks.

1: Everyone to have economic access to sufficient safe, nutritious food
Safe, nutritious food is inevitably more expensive than unsafe food of unknown provenance, or food containing few if any nutrients. And the price of such foods are inevitably going to rise, as they already have done through the pandemic. Thus it’s not a matter of somehow making food ‘more affordable’; it’s a matter of every household having the income to meet all their basic physiological needs, whether from the state or from employment.

If this were in place, two sets of economic and social costs of Covid would evaporate:

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2: The health and well-being of all citizens
The economic, social and psychological costs of diet-related morbidities before Covid were huge. Obesity and impaired metabolic health are major risk factors for severe illness and death from Covid.

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3: Regulation and their enforcement
Pre-Covid, there were not enough resources for food inspection, sampling and testing to ensure high standards of food safety, assurance and integrity. The current relaxation of regulations, including virtual and self-reported inspections has provided opportunities for the unscrupulous and the criminal.

  • In the short term, the Government needs to set regular reviews for independent assessments of the impact of these relaxations and a specific time limit for re-imposition of all regulations. It would be advisable, too, for an outline response, preparedness plan for a food poisoning outbreak during the pandemic or other health service crisis.
  • Post-Covid, there needs to be (a) the separation of the Food Standards Agency from Westminster oversight and (b) at the very least, full implementation of the recommendations made by the Elliott Review in 2014.

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4: Post-Brexit and the new barriers to food trade with the EU27
The UK, now no longer able to trade freely with the EU, looks set to have continuing disruptions to food imports and exports, greatly exacerbated by long-term lack of investment in preservation and processing capacity. This situation has a  potentially devastating consequences for our food security.

As soon as the transition period ended, the non-tariff barriers to trade came into effect. The initial problems are compounding; perhaps RTE’s Tony Connelly heading best summarises the situation back on 16th January 2021: The squall before the storm.

The Government now recognises these are not ‘teething problem’s, but perhaps have yet to realise that they are, in the words of Road Haulage Association CEO Richard Burnett: They are not teething problems; they are strucutural problems

Steve Brennan, CEO of the Cold Chain Federation said his big worry here, is that ‘not trading’ becomes the habit, a situation that Professor Chris Grey’s post Get ready for Long Brexit thinks is inevitable.

Thus:

  • The case for putting in place large-scale buffer contingency stocks is even more urgent because the UK can no longer depend on previous levels of food trade with the EU.
    • As our report on a UK buffer food stock system highlights, investment in preserving and processing, as well as production, is essential and feasible (funded through, our participants suggested, a Food Resilience Levy).
  • It’s important that we begin to tally what structural changes would be desirable and feasible to put forward at the first of the five year reviews of the EU-UK Trade Agreement, which will take place in 2025.

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All of the above is in the context an unprecedented set of circumstances, in addition to specific threats to the global and national food systems.

Other national governments are facing some of them, but only the UK Government is facing a potentially toxic mix of all of them: currently the highest recorded Covid-mortality rate in the world, the growing pauperisation of young adults, labour over-supply, low wages, socio-economic inequalities in life expectancies and in healthy life expectancies, high state debt, the effects of school closures and the huge social disparity in these effects, a fracture in relations with our largest food trade partner (see section 4 above) amid growing speculation about the possible break-up of the UK itself — and a largely insulated professional and governing class.

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