The coronavirus crisis has revealed the weakness of the UK’s food system

A crunch point for food policy and planning is surely approaching – the government must take responsibility for a rationing policy based on health, equity and decency, writes Tim Lang

Tim Lang
Wednesday 25 March 2020 21:39 GMT
The just-in-time system used by supermarkets has proven to be too fragile to cope with a sudden change in demand
The just-in-time system used by supermarkets has proven to be too fragile to cope with a sudden change in demand (EPA)

Food security is no laughing matter at the best of times, but I gasped when I first read the summary of the food sector in the government’s annual report on civil contingencies. It is barely a page long (in public, at least) and assures us that everything is OK and that the food system is resilient and able to withstand shocks. As the coronavirus racks the nation and panic buying continues, this complacency is about to be tested.

Few analysts of the food system in the UK are anything other than sober about its fragility: there is little storage; the supply chain operates on a just-in-time basis – literally, just in time for when the next link or process needs it. Consumers have come to expect constant flows of food, without hiccups or gaps, and new industries have emerged, notably logistics and satellites that track this all from farm to shop. We are trucker-dependent now.

Only 53 per cent of food consumed in the UK is produced in the country. Other nations feed Britain. Some scientists calculate that the UK’s external dependency is even greater, with hidden use of overseas land to provide animal feed.

While this distortedly efficient food revolution has been rolled out, the UK food trade gap – the difference between exports and imports by value – has widened. In 2018, food worth £46.8bn was imported, with exports worth only £22.5bn, leaving a food trade gap of £24.3bn. Many of the imports are vital for health, the £10bn of fruit and veg, in particular. Fruit and veg growing in the UK has sunk, and the main “oral” export these days is whisky. Even meat – supposedly Britain’s forte – is in the red. If borders close or supply chains snap, what then?

It is almost as though a web of supply – from land and sea via processing, distribution, retailing and food service to consumers – was designed not only to ignore but to undermine resilience

Putting money to one side, the UK’s self-reliance has been slowly decreasing for decades after a high point in the early 1980s. I was among academics warning the government in 2017 to beware a no-deal Brexit, as it is the giant supermarkets that coordinate the ceaseless flow of food that comes mostly through Dover and the Channel Tunnel. Their just-in-time systems are easy to disrupt. The retailers privately expressed alarm to the government, but the no-deal posturing continued. It ought to have led the government to prepare for serious change, to put the country’s food supply on a secure footing. This has not happened.

A year later, another report argued that UK food security was more fragile than most people think. Initially, it too was dismissed by the government, only for ministers to U-turn within days and admit that ships were being chartered, including from a company that did not own any ships.

Now the coronavirus exposes other difficulties and deep structural weakness. It is almost as though a web of supply – from land and sea via processing, distribution, retailing and food service to consumers – was designed not only to ignore but to undermine resilience.

Dover is a key entry point for the UK’s just-in-time food imports (Getty)

If food security refers to continuity of supply sufficient to sustain health for all, resilience means it being able to bounce back under threat, and food capacity means having the skills, technology, planning and preparedness to do so.

The food system in the UK is weak in all of these senses, and has been for too long. Food and agriculture account for a quarter of greenhouse-gas emissions. They are the biggest drivers of biodiversity destruction, huge users and polluters of water, and the major driver of much illness from non-communicable diseases and food-borne pathogens. The UK consumes “ultra-processed” foods at the highest rate of any country in Europe. No wonder our levels of obesity are alarming and the NHS under stress.

Food is the UK’s biggest employer, with 4.1 million workers. There’s a feeding frenzy over who can make the most money from food. Currently, this is a battle between retailers, processors and food service, each taking about a quarter of the £120bn from the £225bn that consumers spend on food and drink annually. The new kid on the block is home delivery – Deliveroo, Uber, Just Eat, for example – which now takes £10bn of the £225bn, almost as much money as farming.

We ought to be demanding that Public Health England and the devolved administrations revise our national healthy eating guidelines

The government believes home deliveries will enable people to self-quarantine at home during the coronavirus outbreak. If one in five workers become ill, this strategy might fail because they are often self-employed – meaning that they are unable to claim sickness benefit and incentivised to keep working to pay the bills, potentially spreading disease instead of protecting people from it.

A crunch point for UK food policy and planning is surely approaching. The coronavirus crisis has already spawned worrying actions. Under the threat of a no-deal Brexit, stoicism ruled and “preppers” – people stocking up – were generally few. Today, however, shelves are being stripped and queues form before supermarkets open. It’s why colleagues and I have called on the prime minister to set up a rational system of rationing – based on health, equity and decency – to see the country through this crisis.

Home delivery companies such as Deliveroo now generate almost as much revenue as farming (Reuters)

The just-in-time system of logistics is being stretched. This is why retailers are planning to prune supplies to bare essentials and are rationing. If this is happening with government approval, it is surely an abandonment of democratic responsibility; if not, is government not in control? Meanwhile, for people on severely low incomes, reliance on food banks is creaking. Donations are down. We are clearly not all in this together.

The coming weeks and months will stretch government and industry credibility, and also the public. It will be a test of identity and whether the national interest really does mean all the people. We ought to be preparing a long-term restructuring of the food system. However, the current agriculture bill before parliament doesn’t suggest that. Instead, it’s an economist’s bill that is mainly designed to redirect subsidies around the as-yet-untested notion of “public money for public goods”. Food production and equitable distribution barely feature.

We ought to be demanding that Public Health England and the devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast revise the Eatwell Guide – our national healthy eating guidelines – around sustainable diets, combining health, environment and social criteria such as affordability. These are what should drive production and determine rationing, if circumstances deteriorate.

Meanwhile, it is the food retailers who are beginning to ration supply. This is unacceptable in a democracy. If it is to happen, it ought to be in the open – and guided by health and sustainability. Surely the “public good” lies in feeding everyone well, according to need rather than income. Those values are what got the UK through the Second World War, as our Churchill-inspired prime minister ought to know.

Tim Lang is a professor of food policy at City, University of London. This article first appeared on The Conversation

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