Coronavirus offers chance to create fairer UK food supply chain, say experts

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A radical 10-year recovery plan for the UK food system should draw on local and community responses to the Covid-19 crisis to create a more diverse, sustainable and fairer supply chain, say experts.

The pandemic exposed fragility in the food supply system: farmers poured away more than a million litres of milk, supermarket shelves were stripped of flour while millers were unable to sell it, and potato farmers were forced to hoard stocks. Meanwhile, food banks faced unprecedented demand as household incomes plummeted.

Sue Pritchard, the chief executive of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, said: “The pandemic has exposed the faultlines in our food system.

“We’ve seen big gaps in availability of food, especially for the poor and vulnerable, and significant economic impacts on producers. This crisis demonstrates that people and business are ready to build back better.”

Prof Tim Lang, whose new book Feeding Britain exposes the fragility of the UK food system before Covid-19 struck, said the crisis has concentrated power even more into the hands of the supermarkets.

“Defra wasn’t prepared and hadn’t learned from no-deal Brexit warnings,” he said. “Instead it went into crisis management and handed over responsibility to nine companies which already had 95.7% of the retail market, making an extra present of much of food service.

“This reduced economic diversity by hammering other supply chains and wasted vast resources. It’ll be hard to rein back this concentration of power.”

The crisis in food supplies caused by the pandemic came as the agriculture bill, the biggest change to British agriculture and food production since 1945, was reaching its final stages in the House of Commons.

The Tenant Farmers Association is calling for the bill’s introduction to be delayed until 2022 while farmers, producers and experts reflect on the problems exposed by the pandemic.

An inquiry has been set up by the environment, food and rural affairs committee to analyse how Covid-19 has affected the food system. In its evidence, the TFA said the crisis exposed how inflexible the system was. Farmers who supplied to restaurants and takeaways had their outlets cut off, and were unable to divert their produce to people who needed it.

A woman collects food from a disused traditional red phonebox converted into a free community foodbank

“At a time when consumers were queueing up at retailers keen to buy meat, dairy and fresh produce, it was unacceptable that this demand was unfulfilled despite the fact that sufficient quantities of food were available in the country.”

The TFA said the government had handed the monopoly to supermarkets in response to the crisis but the retailers had done little to change their buying patterns and source food from farmers whose markets had dried up. Some supermarkets sourced meat from Poland while British farmers were forced to stockpile.

Pritchard said there were many examples of resilience in local communities which emphasised the need to build a more diverse food system.

Feedback, an environmental charity, said: “There is a chance for the government to treat this moment of crisis as an opportunity to reshape supply chains in ways that will be helpful in the long-term for supporting producers and reducing the environmental impacts of food production.”

It is calling for the creation of a national food service to create a joined up and equitable approach to preparing and distributing meals at the local and community level.

Anna Taylor, the executive director of the Food Foundation, said the Covid-19 pandemic was having a material impact on what millions of adults and children were able to eat.

“We desperately need a social security system which protects everyone’s right to good food, now and in the future. The system must support those who have gone into this crisis already struggling, and the millions more who have been added to their number. What we eat remains fundamentally important for our health: we need to rebuild our food system so that good food, which helps us stay healthy, is the norm.”

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Minette Batters, the president of the National Farmers’ Union, which is calling for legal guarantees against imports from countries such as the the US with lower environmental and animal welfare standards, said the government must support British farmers. “There will be a danger – and this will be a continuing danger – that as we come back to normality, we do not want to see other product dumped on this marketplace,” she said in evidence to the environment, food and rural affairs committee.

“I think that is a very live challenge. Government getting behind the ‘buy British’ message, and loving British food, is incredibly important.”

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