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The Big Picture

How is the UK’s food system being affected by global and national changes and challenges?

The wide-reaching consequences of Covid-19 led to a new and sharper focus on food supply chains and public health in 2020. With Brexit on the horizon and climate change increasingly on the political agenda, how will these challenges and opportunities shape the UK’s food system and the health of the population?

We’ll be looking at retail food prices and how the changing geopolitical landscape may affect these, charting the impact of Britain’s new trade deals on fruit and vegetables supply chains, and exploring whether the long-term effects of Covid-19 are changing our eating and buying patterns as citizens.

Finally, with Covid-19 having impacted on health care systems and highlighted pre-existing health inequalities, we’ll look at how population health continues to be impacted as a result of these converging issues.

View our UK Food Tracker in full

Citizen food behaviour

Almost a third of Brits (29%) have made changes to their diet since March 2020 according to a new report commissioned by the Grocer in conjunction with consultancy firm Strategy&. Health has been the major driver of dietary change, with the biggest behaviour shift reported for fruit and vegetable consumption. 40% of those surveyed said the biggest change they’d made since the start of the pandemic was increasing the amount of fruit and veg they were eating – a 14% increase on pre-pandemic levels. This aligns with research by IGD, which found that 86% of shoppers are actively trying to improve their diet in some waywith eating more fruit and vegetables cited as the top aspiration. Lockdown has also driven an increase in people seeking out comfort foods, such as biscuits: 

(source: The Grocer, 2021) 

A new report by Premier Foods using Kantar and YouGov data has also highlighted some of the potentially positive changes in citizen food behaviours emerging as a result of the pandemic. Throughout 2020 there was an increase in the number of dishes families cooked at home, with a 46% increase in plantbased meals, and 91% saying they intended to cook the same amount or more in 2021 – cost savings cited as a key motivation. 81% said they wanted to eat more healthily over the coming year. 

However, despite the upsurge of interest in cooking and the desire of many to eat more healthily, a mixed picture is still emerging on food consumption during 2020. A study looking at the effect of Quarantine in Northern Italy found that intake of nearly all food groups increased (including fruit and veg as well as sugar and alcohol) leading to an overall reduction in dietary quality. A Spanish study also found highly diverse dietary responses to lockdown, which chimes with the results from the UK and US ‘Zoe Covid symptom’ app which collected survey responses from over 1 million individuals over 6 months during 2020finding that two thirds of people experienced some level of diet and lifestyle disruption with variable changes to weight and fruit and veg consumption patterns. 

The UK’s Health

Almost exactly one year since the UK first entered lockdown, deaths from Covid-19 reached 125,000. Despite the early success of the UK’s vaccination programme, vaccination uptake remains low in those areas where infection rates have been highest, with data suggesting the poorest and most ethnically diverse communities are seeing the lowest levels of uptakeIn the House of Commons last week the UK’s experience of Covid-19 was described as “a story of two nations – rich and poor, with poorer communities both more likely to die from Covid-19 and to have lower uptake of vaccines. 

Meanwhile, the indirect impact of Covid-19 continues to affect the health of the population. A study conducted by Cancer Research UK has suggested that almost half (45%) of those experiencing cancer symptoms during the first lockdown did not seek help, with many concerned about placing further strain on the NHS. Levels of physical activity among children remain a cause for concern. A study in Bradford found that a third of children rarely left their homes during the first lockdown, with only one in three getting the recommended amount of exercise. Inactivity was highest among children from poorer and ethnically diverse backgrounds. 

Further evidence emerging on the UK’s first lockdown last year, however, shows that it’s not all bad news when it comes to public health. Research published this week and commissioned by Public Health Scotland showed a 6% reduction in total alcohol sales in Scotland, England and Wales in the period from March 15th to July 11th. Although there were increases in retail sales these “did not fully replace” the reduction in on-trade sales associated with the closure of pubs, clubs and restaurants. 

The economy and food supply chains

Low-income families have felt the pinch of the pandemic more than wealthier families according to a study by the Resolution Foundation, which found that poorer households are, in fact, spending more during lockdown, not less. With schools closed, families spent more on food, energy, and entertaining children, and were twice as likely to report an increase in spending. Lockdown and health concerns also meant people were more likely to have to use more expensive local shops and online supermarkets 

Meanwhile, reports abound that the Government is considering scaling back planned checks and regulations on food imports from the EU due to be brought in this April and June, given fears that such restrictions will damage trade and could lead to shortages in UK supermarkets. A survey last week by the Food and Drink Federation of its members that send goods to the EU found a 45% drop in exports since 1st January. Globally, Covid continues to put pressure on food supply chains, with reports that food insecurity in Africa has increased by 60% from 2019 to 2020, caused by a number of drivers including conflict, road closures due to COVID-19, flooding, locusts, and hyperinflation. 

Food prices and supply chains

Globally, the impact of coronavirus restrictions on economies is impacting on food prices, with UN FAO data showing food prices hit six-year high in January after rising for eight consecutive months. Reuters reports that in many emerging economies food staples are being particularly affected by rising inflation with Turkey, Nigeria and Brazil seeing double digit food price rises and prices of staples like rice increasing by up to 76%An article in the Lancet this month exploring the bi-directional relationship between trade and Covid-19 warned that the disruption to global trade as a result of Covid may well undermine nutrition and food security, urging governments to reform trade arrangements after the pandemic to deliver more healthy and sustainable outcomes. 

Agnes Kalibata, the special envoy to the UN secretary general for the Food Systems Summit 2021 recently warned that people living in poverty around the world are at increasing risk of food shortages as a result. With food prices rising in many countries and with many households currently in precarious financial positions, changing weather patterns are exacerbating these issues. Extreme weather is impacting on the prices of vegetable oils for example, according to Mintec, with reduced yields as a result of drweather in the Mediterranean last year likely to impact on the price of oils and also processed foods – which often contain sunflower oil. 

Certainly, the latest ONS Consumer Price Index data showed UK inflation rose 0.7% in the 12 months to January, up from December’s 0.6%, with some predicting that 2021 will see continued inflation over the remainder of the year. For the first time in several months (see the Food Foundation’s tracking of food prices here) retail prices for food increased, with a rise in vegetable prices between January and February 2021 contributing to this upward trend. 

Citizen food behaviours

The impact of the pandemic on people’s livelihoods has led to a surge in small, at-home food businesses that the Food Safety Authority (FSA) this week called a ‘concerning development’.  According to the FSA many are failing to formally register as food businesses, meaning their hygiene arrangements are not checked by local authorities with a resulting risk to the general public. About 44% of new food businesses started since the first lockdown are home-based, according to a recent FSA survey of nearly 200 local authorities. 

Almost one year into the pandemic and the shift towards onlinshopping continues, with online grocery market share having doubled since the start of 2020 to 14% according to Kantar. Ocado this week announced that its sales had increased by a huge 35% over the course of the pandemic, with the CEO (perhaps optimistically) commenting that the grocery landscape worldwide is changing “for good”. Sales of organic food and drink have also benefitted during the pandemic, with new data from the Soil Association finding that sales grew 12.6% from 2019, representing a 15-year high growth rate and outperforming growth in the non-organic sector. One in four organic purchases was made online last year, with increasing sales of organic fruit and veg boxes cited as one potential reason for the uplift. Organic veg box supplier Riverford said 2020 sales increased by more than 40% compared to the prior year. 

Divergent reports of fruit and veg consumption during Covid continue. Data from the Zoe Covid symptom tracker app found that while 33% of survey participants reported having increased their fruit and vegetable consumption between February and July 2020, 23% reported a decrease. With Tesco last month reporting record sales highs for brassicas and green veg during the first few weeks of 2021, growers’ associations are also reporting an uplift in fruit and veg sales. The British Onions Producers’ Association and UK Brassica Growers Association last week said they have experienced soaring sales of onions and brassicas during lockdown, and cited retail reports of a 25% rise in year-on-year sales of onions as an example. However, Euromonitor’s most recent Fresh Produce report found that while retail has seen a sales increase for the vegetable category with more citizens cooking at home, overall, the category had seen a total volume sales decline due to the closure of the out of home sector of 3% in 2020 to sit at 3.8 million tonnes. 

Meat consumption also appears to have increased during the pandemic, with new research by Mintel finding that 41% of British consumers said they ate no or less meat last year, compared to 51% in 2019. Cuts such as burgers, bacon and sausages also increased in popularity according to the survey, with over half reporting that these foods were ‘comforting’. 

The UK’s health

A letter signed by a number of professional health organisations (including the Royal Colleges of Nursing and General Practitioners) has called on the government to extend the £20 uplift to Universal Credit in April, warning that dropping the payment uplift will harm the health of millions of people for decades with the payments “an investment in our nation’s health, ensuring many of those on the lowest incomes have access to essentials like food or heating”. 

Although cases of Covid-19 have started to fall across the UK, the knock-on effect of the second wave on NHS capacity continues to be felt. NHS waiting lists hit their highest number since 2008 in February, with the number waiting over a year for their treatment now 150 times higher than it was in 2019. Mental health professionals are also increasingly concerned at the ongoing effect the pandemic is having, with the ONS estimating that the proportion of individuals showing symptoms of depression has almost doubled since the start of the pandemic, despite access to publicly funded mental health support services having dropped over the course of the past year. 

Meanwhile, with the UK’s vaccination programme underway and the third lockdown ongoing, ethnicity and deprivation have for the first time been recognised as risk factors for severe outcomes from Covid in a new risk analysis tool commissioned by the Chief Medical Officer for England. This will lead to nearly 2 million more people being advised to shield and 800,000 being fast-tracked for vaccines than were previously considered at high risk in England.

The Economy

The UK’s economy shrank by 9.9% in 2020 due to Covid-19 restrictions, with some suggesting this was the economy’s worst performance since as far back as 1709. Although the economy picked up again towards the end of 2020 the economic downturn continues to affect many, with the Financial Conduct Authority last week commenting that the financial pain caused by the pandemic ‘is not being shared equally.’ Their Financial Lives Survey found that a quarter of the UK adult population now have low financial resilience with one in ten planning to use a food bank. Young working adults and people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds have been worse affected according to the survey. The Women and Equalities Committe this month also criticized the government’s job support and furlough scheme, commenting that their policies have been ‘repeatedly skewed towards men’ and overlooked the fact that women often have higher caring responsibilities. 

Food supply chains

Concerns around the strength of the UK’s food supply chain have continued in the face of the new EU trade deal and the UK’s second Covid-19 wave. The government has urged food and drink companies to sign up to its mass testing programme, saying it is vital in order to allow the UK’s food supply to “keep running” amid the pandemic with the majority of workers in the food sector unable to work from home. 

Elsewhere, problems continue with food imports and exports following the end of the UK’s Brexit transition period. The CEO of Lidl UK has voiced concerns about what will happen in July when stricter controls will be brought in, noting that despite the positives “this is not a frictionless and barrier-free deal.” From April, export health certificates will be required for a number of additional food products, with any processed foods that contain animal-based ingredients needing an export health certificate. Currently this only applies for meat, fish and dairyThe FDF have warned this will negatively impact on smaller companies in particular. Reports of rotting food with companies unable to bring meat and dairy foods into the country due to issues with the new requirements have led to the government announcing a £23 million fund to compensate fishing firms for their losses. 

The UK’s health

January 25th saw the UK pass a grim milestone as the recorded death toll from Covid-19 passed 100,000 deaths, barely a year since the virus first reached Great Britain. The BBC outlined the different reasons being theorised as the cause of the UK’s high Covid-19 mortality rate compared to other countries in this review article, pointing to a number of potential contributing factors including the government’s response, the underlying public health status of the population, and the UK’s position as a hub for international air travel. Beyond deaths directly caused by Covid-19, evidence continues to emerge on the impact of the pandemic and associated restrictions on wider population health, with the ONS recording the highest number of deaths attributed to alcohol on record for England and Wales. During the first nine months of 2020, over 5,000 deaths were attributed to alcohol – a 16% increase on the number recorded for the same period of time in 2019.  

What’s more, some of the more positive changes in health behaviours recorded during the first lockdown appear to be waning, with UCL study finding that 40% reported doing less exercise during the third lockdown than they did in the first – with seasonality no doubt partly playing role in this. The Scottish Health Survey have also published the findings of a recent telephone survey conducted during 2020 with nearly 2,000 adults, finding that those who had been advised to shield were likely to have lower mental wellbeing than those who had not, as well as reporting lower levels of physical activity. 39% reported their weight had increased between March and August 2020, while 18% reported having lost weight. Food insecurity was highest among younger adults aged 16-44 years old (11% compared to an overall average of 8%).