Words by Richard Fleury
A fortnight after a senior Government's adviser argued the UK does not need a farming industry, many British shoppers saw empty supermarket shelves for the first time in their lives.
Dr Tim Leunig reportedly told Number 10 agriculture was “not critically important” to the country’s economy, citing the example of Singapore – a country of 5.6 million – which is “rich without having its own agricultural sector”.
But, as if to remind us you can't eat money, just two weeks later supermarkets were stripped almost bare.
To the apparent surprise of Downing Street’s team of top behavioural scientists, the UK went into panic-buying mode, spending £1 billion on extra food in just four weeks.
While food retailers insisted warehouses were full, customers in Faversham as elsewhere were unable to buy staples like tinned veg, rice and pasta. Online customers waited weeks for food while delivery slots were rationed and new customers turned away.
Food security is just one of many certainties that has crumbled under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic.Nothing raises questions about the food supply sustainability quite like an empty shelf.
“It has highlighted the importance of food production in the UK. Everyone in food production from farmer to seasonal picker is a key worker. Hedge fund managers are not!” said Chris Rose, commercial controller of Faversham-based fruit producers co-operative Asplins.
At the height of the nation's Covid-19 panic-buying spree, Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted: “We are absolutely confident our supply chains are working, and will work, and we will get farm to fork food supplies. People should have no reason to stockpile.”
But when it came to keeping the kitchen cupboards full, the public – even those who trusted Johnson enough to vote for him – weren't taking any chances. Food hoarding was rife and bad behaviour commonplace with shoppers at Faversham's Tesco and Sainsbury's stores abusing workers trying to enforce rationing of sought-after items. Some local checkout staff were reduced to tears by the daily onslaught. “What’s wrong?” said one young cashier. “You never know what people are really like until they can't get what they want anymore.”
Experts too were far from reassured. Three professors called Boris Johnson's response “weak and unconvincing”, warning 8.4 million British people could run short of food without a national rationing scheme. Tim Lang, a professor of food policy at the University of London described the crisis as “Brexit times 20”, adding: “We’ve got to do demand management, not just blame people when they start getting three days or a week’s food supply.”
The UK's food supply chain has never been more precarious. Today's retailers now carry just 24-36 hours of stock, compared with 10-12 days thirty years ago.
“Stock is all in trucks or on the shelves – in pursuit of ‘efficiency’ and cost-cutting, the system has lost its resilience,” said Prof Erik Millstone, head of Sussex University’s science policy research unit.
Prof Terry Marsden, of Cardiff University agreed: “We need to rebuild resilience for our food system and reduce our reliance on imports and just-in-time deliveries.”
Since the lockdown closed restaurants, pubs and cafes, consumption of food bought in shops has risen 30 percent. And a recent report from Reuters suggested Britain’s big four supermarket chains now want longer opening hours or a relaxation of social distancing rules to increase in-store sales.
“The problem is, can you feed 60 million people at the rate you can get people through the stores with that social distancing?” one industry executive told the news agency.
And even if supermarkets doubled online delivery, 85% of the market would still need to be served by stores, according to another food retail director. To get more shoppers in stores at any one time, supermarkets are considering making shoppers wear compulsory face masks. “It will become as commonplace as picking up a trolley or a basket,” said the executive.
Meanwhile Britain's logistics industry, battling to replenish food and medical supplies in the face of international lockdowns and border closures, is urging the Government to delay Brexit. The Freight Transport Association, whose members move goods by road, rail, sea, and air, is calling for the transition period to be extended beyond the end of this year.
Brexit or not, our food supply depends on an intricate European agro-food market connected by cross-border supply chains.
Only 50 percent of the fruit and veg we eat is grown here in the UK. Outside the British growing season, we import much of our fresh fruit and vegetables from Southern Europe and North Africa.
"In early Spring, (the UK market) is reliant on Spain and Morocco,” says Faversham fruit farmer Sean Figgis of Edward Vinson Ltd. “And Spanish growers have stopped picking due to lack of workers and demand from Northern Europe.”
Good news may be thin on the ground, but there is some: “There is scope for a significant amount of import subsitution, says Asplins’ Chris Rose. “We can grow a lot more fruit and veg. I think there will be greater appreciation of local produce, a realisation that having every product readily available 52 weeks a year is not necessary.”
Barely a month ago, Downing Street was advised that Britain's farmers were expendable. Since then, a virus has demonstrated just how fragile our food supply chain really is, how quickly 'just in time' can become not in time and how important national food security will be in a future shaped by climate change.
As Chris Rose says: “Perhaps farmers and growers are being seen in a more positive light.”