Milk thrown down the drain while millions go hungry: Lockdown puts increasing strain on Britain’s food system

While supermarket shelves have been restocked, beneath the surface, parts of the nation's food system are in need of support, writes Ben Chapman

Monday 20 April 2020 07:50 BST
Experts argue Britain’s food system is vulnerable, in part because it is overly reliant on a handful of supermarkets
Experts argue Britain’s food system is vulnerable, in part because it is overly reliant on a handful of supermarkets

From a mosque in Banbury, taxi drivers left out of work during the lockdown are picking up an unusual fare: hundreds of doughballs and garlic dip that had been destined for local pizza restaurants and are now being diverted to people’s homes.

Yasmin Kaduji, who runs Banbury Community Fridge is one of thousands of people working overtime across the UK to get meals to three million people thought to be going hungry due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Yet, at the same time British farmers are warning they have been forced to throw millions of gallons of milk down the drain because it no longer has a buyer, cheesemakers are binning artisan cheese and meat processors have an overabundance of sirloin, rib-eye steaks and prime roasting joints. Supply and demand are severely misaligned.

While supermarket stocks have returned closer to normal after being plundered last month, more deep-rooted problems lay ahead for Britain’s food supplies which are set to come under increasing strain as lockdown is extended for at least another three weeks and could go on for much longer.

The problem is not that there is not enough food but that the well-established routes that supply it have been upended so abruptly.

When we saw empty shelves last month, the primary cause was not inconsiderate stockpilers, as some government ministers claimed, but the fact that a massive part of the food industry had been shut down overnight without a plan in place for how hundreds of millions of meals would be redirected.

In normal times, 35 per cent of the food we eat – around 70 million meals every day – is prepared outside our homes, by restaurants and caterers, in cafes and school canteens.

Because restaurants’ needs are very different to those of people cooking at home, billions of pounds of produce was suddenly left without a buyer. The doughballs may have found a grateful home but much more has gone to waste.

The efforts of Banbury’s taxi drivers along with food waste organisations like FareShare have made a huge impact, and supermarkets have put money behind the cause, but redistributing a third of Britain’s food is an impossible task without full national co-ordination. For farmers, who cannot quickly change the crops they grow or the animals they rear to suit the new reality, the problems are are building up.

The government has vandalised the food services industry, which a third of British food goes through

Professor Tim Lang

Tim Lang, professor of food policy, at London’s City University, argues that the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the fragility of our food system; a system which stretches out over thousands of miles, dozens of countries, and is reliant on migrant labour and air freight. That system has been reshaped, according to Professor Lang’s analysis, largely to suit the interests of nine companies which sell 90 per cent of the food we buy.

Supermarkets have been happy to rely on sprawling supply chains that are left exposed during a crisis, as long as the price is right and the product sells. This, along with a “dangerously complacent” government, has left the UK vulnerable in the current situation, Professor Lang argues.

He believes the government has failed to prepare for disruption to food supplies. For years he has called for a national food plan that would build a system resilient to shocks and which is focused on public health, rather than simply profit.

“The government has vandalised the food services industry, which a third of British food goes through,” he says. “That’s destroyed skills, capabilities, resources, facilities and catering’s very diverse supply lines. They’ve concentrated all food access through nine retailers, basically.”

Coronavirus has really highlighted the vulnerability of our current food system and that’s only going to get worse

Ashley Wheeler, Trill Farm Garden

Those retailers in turn are reliant on supplies which are under pressure. As a nation, we import half of our food from abroad and, according to some analysts, the true figure could be as high as 80 per cent.

Research by HSBC has pointed out that food processed in Britain, like tea, is often classified in the figures as British even if it’s grown thousands of miles away in much warmer climes.

Advocates of the current supermarket-dominated system argue that the prioritisation of price and cosmetic appearance of food is what consumers want. We vote with our wallets, after all.

But while market forces are important for signalling what we want and getting it to where we want it, they have left us ill-prepared for a crisis.

They have left us vulnerable at a tricky time of year, known as “the Hungry Gap” which stretches from the end of the winter season and the start of the summer in late May or sometimes even early June.

Historically, it is the leanest part of the year for Britons, when the carrots, onions, potatoes and swede stored through the winter have run out but asparagus – the first sign of summer, in vegetable terms at least – has not yet fully grown. For several decades now, it is the period when we are most reliant on imported food.

This year that reliance is being put to the test as the countries we source much of our food from, notably Spain and Italy, experience their own problems getting enough labour onto farms and seeds in the ground.

We changed our crop plan within a week

Ashley Wheeler, Trill Farm Garden

Many small British farmers are stepping up to the challenge of constrained supplies, quickly diverting food that was destined for restaurants and delivering it directly to people’s homes. Yet they feel they are being given no support from the government, despite their important role in our food system.

Ashley Wheeler and Kate Norman have run Trill Farm Garden, a 2-acre market garden in Devon, for the past 10 years. Like many farms of its size, Trill sells vegetables – primarily salad leaves – directly to local restaurants. The government closed down its customer base without warning but has not helped them with the upheaval, but they have taken the initiative.

“We changed our whole crop plan within a week,” says Wheeler. Some of the salad leaves were out, while leafy greens like kale and chard were in.

With a couple of phone calls he was able to sell the salad he no longer had a buyer for to another small grower in Sussex who was delivering it straight to people’s homes.

He ordered vegetables like carrots and potatoes from other farms, bought a van and borrowed some cold storage from a friend. Within days, Trill Farm set up a vegetable box delivery service.


Amount of food that was prepared outside of households before social distancing measures were enforced

“There are a lot of small farms that have got the produce and can deliver it to people, whereas there have been waits of three weeks for some supermarkets.

“Coronavirus has really highlighted the vulnerability of our current food system and that’s only going to get worse,” says Wheeler, who points to delays planting crops in Southern Europe that could lead to problems in a few months.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation forecasts that the Covid-19 pandemic will cause shortages of some crops this year. In that scenario, producer countries are likely to prioritise their home markets over exports, increasing the onus on British producers to supply this country’s needs.

Many small farmers do not have the cash, particularly at this time of year, to invest in making the required changes, meaning a crucial resource risks being underutilised. It is a period when farmers are at their most stretched financially (because they have little to sell) and in terms of workload (because they have lots to plant).

“It’s a crazy time for us to set up a business, which is what we’re effectively doing,” says Wheeler whose nine-year-old son has even been enlisted to help out, specialising in jobs like inputting postcodes on the satnav for deliveries.

“There’s now a massive demand for local produce but we have friends who are worried about making the change [to direct deliveries].

“It requires quite a lot of investment in having the space to pack everything, the IT to manage all your customers as well as transport and cold storage.”

The Landworkers’ Alliance, which represents smallholders in the UK, is urging the government to give farmers grants of up to £10,000, similar to those recently made available for hospitality and leisure businesses.

They argue that they have shown they can adapt rapidly to local needs in a way that supermarkets are unable to do.

“All it takes is a really small support package and it will have a massive impact on the country’s food security,” says Wheeler. “It’s not a big ask.”

But, as with much of the economic response to coronavirus, it must happen urgently to prevent lasting damage. Farmers need to know now whether to adapt their crops for delivering to our homes, or to stick with their original plans. With each week that goes by the dates for sowing many crops are edging away. By June, it will be too late.

For Trill Farm the shift in focus is likely to extend beyond the crisis, and Wheeler wants other market gardens to have the same opportunity.

“We’re getting some amazing emails from our new customers. People who’ve been unable to go out for food and were really worried, one woman whose husband had cancer. Us delivering to their door is a massive thing for those people.

“People become loyal to local food producers. A relationship builds up that you don’t get with Tesco. Now that we’re doing it we want to carry on. It feels like an important thing to do.”

Other parts of Britain’s food supply network are under even more imminent threat. Last week, dairy farmers demanded intervention from the government after demand slumped and key purchasers slashed their orders, forcing millions of gallons of milk to be thrown down the drain.

Restaurants were no longer buying and supermarkets have not picked up the slack. Many dairy farmers are at risk of going out of business soon, unless a balance can be struck with buyers.

Dairy farmers are at risk of going out of business soon, unless a balance can be struck with buyers

Next in line to experience big problems are meat producers. As the nation stocked up in supermarkets for an extended period indoors, demand for mince shot up. At the same time, high-end eateries were no longer purchasing prime cuts for steaks and roast dinners.

This presents a big problem for beef and lamb farmers because it destroys what’s known in the trade as “carcase balance” – the need to sell an equal amount of each part of the animal at the best price. Most farmers already operate on tight margins leaving little room for manoeuvre and putting them under “extreme” pressure, according to the National Farmers’ Union.

Meat processors now have a rapidly increasing pile of thousands of rib-eye steaks, fillets and silverside roasting joints. The industry has issued an impassioned plea for supermarkets to buy more of these cuts and promote them in store to help out.

“Put simply, we cannot sustain a stable supply of one half of each animal,” the National Farmers’ Union said last week.

“We think the whole chain has a renewed moral responsibility to make sure we market and value our product responsibly to avoid disruption to the consumer and of course to the farmer’s ability to maintain supply.”

Supermarkets are the only route to market for the vast majority of farmers, and consumers rely on supermarkets to access nearly all of farmers’ produce, the NFU said. “This moral responsibility cannot be avoided and nor will it be forgotten.”

For Professor Lang the dire situation makes it all the more urgent to overhaul Britain’s food system, as he has been calling for. He wants sustainability, public health and resilience to be at the heart of a national food policy, not just profits for private enterprises.

“Where is the food plan, prime minister?” is a question he has asked successive UK governments for many years. The Covid-19 crisis may mean he will now, finally, receive a proper answer.

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