The Big Picture

How is COVID-19 affecting how we feed ourselves?

COVID-19 is having a significant impact on the UK food system. To understand what this will mean for citizens, we’ll be monitoring trajectories for these variables:

  • Infection and mortality rates – how will infection and vaccine developments unfold, and will these be mirrored in food system changes?
  • Civil cohesion and food poverty – will we see civil unrest if people struggle to afford food and prices rise?
  • Food prices – how will supply chains be affected; will export bans lead to price rises and shortages; will domestic production increase and will average prices of fruit, vegetables and other staple foods increase as a result?
  • Fruit and vegetable sales

Follow system-wide developments here as we track shifting challenges and demands, and look at how coronavirus-driven change is reflected in the food system.

Return to our homepage to view the COVID-19 Tracker in full.

New data from WRAP show the food waste is increasing again

A new report released by the food waste NGO WRAP, has found that self-reported food waste is rising as lockdown measures in the UK continue to ease. Previous research conducted by WRAP found that during the initial phase of lockdown, levels of food waste fell by 43% between November 2019 and April 2020, with many households engaging in more rigorous household food planning behaviours. However, research conducted between 17th and 23rd June 2020 found that this trend appears to be reversing, with the average level of waste across four key products (bread, milk, potatoes and chicken) currently at 17.9%, up from 13.7% in April (an increase of 31%). Although this is still below the levels seen pre-lockdown, 27% of those surveyed were classified as having higher levels of food waste, with this group more likely to be those returning to ‘normal’ (e.g. children returned to school, furloughed but now returned to work). Despite 70% of British citizens expressing a desire to maintain some of the more positive habits taken up during lockdown, these results indicate that for many, changed behaviours during covid-19 may be transient ones only. 

The National Food Strategy recommends future trade deals are assessed from a food systems perspective

Part one of the National Food Strategy, an independent enquiry commissioned by the government, has put forward a number of urgent policy recommendations in light of Covid-19’s ongoing impact on society and the economy. The report included three recommendations covering the trade of food and agricultural commodities. 

1) The Government should only agree to cut tariffs in new trade deals on products which meet Britain’s
core standards  

2) The Government should give itself a statutory duty to commission an independent report on
 all proposed trade agreements, assessing their impact from a holistic food systems perspective to include: economic productivity; food safety and public health; the environment and climate change; society and labour; human rights; and animal welfare.  

3) The Government should adopt a statutory duty to give Parliament the time and opportunity to
properly scrutinize any new trade deal.   

These recommendations are timely in light of the impending end of the Brexit transition period, and emphasise the importance of not lowering the UK’s current food standards in order to agree trade deals – something hotly debated over the last few months with chlorine-washed chicken becoming a symbol of the potential changes Britain’s new trade position might have on our food supplies. 

Government launches new obesity strategy using Covid-19 as a teachable moment

The UK government yesterday revealed a package of measures as part of the Government’s new Obesity Strategy, with messaging framing the strategy as a drive to get the nation ‘fit and healthy, protect themselves against COVID-19 and protect the NHS’. Coinciding with a report released on Saturday by Public Health England that detailed the association between high BMI and risk of more severe outcomes from Covid-19, it is thought that the Prime minister is keen to use Covid-19 as a teachable moment for improving the nation’s health following his own stint in ICU for Covid-19, which he is believed to have attributed to his own weight. The measures announced include: 

  •  A Ban on TV and online adverts for food high in fat, sugar and salt before 9pm 
  • The end of deals like ‘buy one get one free’ on unhealthy food high in salt, sugar and fat 
  •  Calories to be displayed on menus to help people make healthier choices when eating out – while alcoholic drinks could soon have to list calories 
  • A new campaign to help people lose weight, get active and eat better after COVID-19 “wake-up call”

Staying in is the new going out: sales of ice-cream increase while deodorant falls

Sales data from Unilever, the consumer goods company, show that staying in is impacting on what we buy – as well as personal grooming habits. While ice cream sales increased by 26% in the three months to June demand for shampoo and deodorant fell. Sales of cleaning products also benefitted from increased focus on hygiene, with sales of hand sanitiser and surface cleaners soaring. With the Out Of Home sector closed and people eating at home all of Unilever’s food brands saw strong growth in contrast to personal care products. 

Survey finds millenials are more attracted to plant-based diets following Covid-19

New research from Mintel has found that 25% of British Millenials say that Covid-19 has made “plant-based diets more appealing” to them, with 12% of all Brits and almost a quarter (22%) of Londoners surveyed saying they would be more interested in adopting a vegan or plant-based diet in the future. Health and nutrition appear to be a more important focus for many in the wake of Covid-19, with 37% of those surveyed saying that Covid-19 has prompted them to add more nutrients to their diets in order to support their immune systems and 23% saying they are eating more fruit and veg since the outbreak. Generation Z (aged 20 and under) (31%) and Millennials (21-40) (27%) are most likely to be focussed on fruit and veg according to the survey. Many beliefs captured by the survey show a focus on ‘optimal health’, with 66% believing that vitamin C can support the immune system and half of Brits believing plant and botanical ingredients can treat ailments. 

New monitoring tool from Public Health England shows changing patterns of grocery shopping

Public Health England have launched a new monitoring tool tracking the wider impacts of COVID-19 on health (WICH), which looks at the indirect effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the population’s health and wellbeing. One area covered by the tool is changes in grocery purchasing, using data from Kantar. The data shows that the total volume of food and drink purchased has increased by 11.5% year on year, with sales of alcohol increasing by 29.6% and confectionary by almost 20%.  Sales of fruit, veg and salads have increased by a relatively smaller 9.7% (year on year) Across all social classes the number of shopping trips made every week has decreased, while the amount bought during each trip has increased, showing a move towards the weekly shop of old.

CPI data shows overall inflation has increased although retail food prices are slightly down

The latest Consumer Price Index (CPI) data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) was released today for the month of June. The CPI index, used to monitor inflation, was very slightly up in June compared to May, with The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) 12-month rate at 0.6%, up from 0.5% in May. However, the largest (partially offsetting) downward contribution (of 0.06 percentage points) to the change in the CPIH 12-month inflation rate between May and June came from food and non-alcoholic beverages, with prices falling by 0.6% this year, compared with a rise of 0.1% a year ago. The largest contribution to the price fall came from vegetables. Food Foundation analysis of CPI average retail prices found that prices fell by 1.23% compared to the preceding month, with the average price of iceberg lettuce falling by 13.64% compared to May. Prices of fruit were fairly stable, increasing by 0.66% compared to May. View our tracker here.

Food Foundation analysis sees a second consecutive drop in imports of fruit and veg

Using the Office of National Statistics (ONS) country by commodity trade statistics, we’ve been tracking the month-on-month value of fruit and veg imports into the UK. We’ve focussed on six countries: Spain, the Netherlands, South Africa, the Republic of Ireland, Chile, and Costa Rica which together supplied 63.4% of all UK veg imports and 48.6% of fruit imports in 2018. Data released in July for May show that the value of imports into the UK fell compared to the preceding month. Imports of fruit and veg were down 0.29% as an overall average for the six countries compared to April 2020. This was lower than the amount imported into the UK for this group of countries in the same month during both 2019 and 2018. View our trade tracker here.