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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.

Suppliers ration stocks of tinned tomatoes after surge in demand

While to date it has been the retailers who have imposed restrictions on the number of items that consumers can buy, an article in the Guardian reports that tinned tomato suppliers are rationing stocks to supermarkets after demand in the UK surged more than 30% – suggesting that pressures are occurring at multiple stages of the food supply chain.

Suppliers and retailers said demand for tomatoes had outstripped that for beans, soup and tinned fish or vegetables, leaving suppliers concerned about stocks running low. A director of Princes Group, which owns the Napolina brand, confirmed it was allocating stock to its clients to ensure it could “fairly and equitably share” what is available and prevent stocks running out before the new season begins in June.

The seasonality of vegetable production is likely a particular concern in this instance, as this year’s summer tomato harvest is still a few months away. Italian tomatoes make up about three-quarters of UK stocks, according to the Grocer trade journal, and are canned between June and September. With Italy seeing lockdown measure extended until May 3rd it is possible that COVID-19 will also affect the seasonal labour force usually involved in tomato harvesting.

RSA and Food Foundation survey shows changes in citizen attitudes to the food system

A YouGov survey commissioned jointly by the RSA’s Food, Farming and Countryside Commission and the Food Foundation has found that COVID-19 and lockdown are impacting on societal attitudes towards food, the environment, and day-to-day life in general.

The poll finds a clear majority (85%) want to see at least some of changes they have experienced continue afterwards, while just 9% want a complete return to life exactly as it was before lockdown.

The survey also identifies other changes in attitudes towards food, family and the environment:

  • 51% say they have noticed cleaner air, and 27% more wildlife, since the lockdown began
  • Social bonds are stronger, with 40% feeling a stronger sense of local community and 39% more in touch with friends and family
  • 42% say the outbreak has made them value food more, and one in ten have shared something like food or shopping with a neighbour for the first time
  • More than 19 million (38%) say they are cooking more from scratch and 17 million are throwing away less food (33%).
  • 6%, or 3 million people, have tried a veg box scheme or ordered food from a local farm for the very first time
  • But although 9% feel fitter and 27% are getting more exercise, more people (36%) say they are getting less exercise than before.

With 30% of calories usually eaten out of the home, the closure of restaurants, pubs, school and workplace canteens in line with social distancing measures is clearly having a profound impact on where and how people prepare their food. Shortages of products such as eggs and flour appear to be linked to a surge in home baking according to The Grocer (with sourdough and banana bread proving particularly popular on social media channels), which also tallies with the current shift towards home cooking evidenced in the survey results.

Similarly, continued pressure on supermarket supplies, in addition to the government suggesting that people should shop as infrequently as possible appear to be encouraging more people to reduce household food waste and to obtain food through different sales channels – such as veg boxes.

With many working in food, health, and sustainability hopeful that these changes will help to guide future food system policy, it remains to be seen whether these changes will persist once lockdown measures lift and meals are once again eaten out of the home.

The World Vegetable Centre expect vegetable production, trade, and consumption to be affected by COVID-19

In a blog for IFPRI, The World Vegetable Centre production warn that despite their importance as part of a nutritious diet, vegetables may be severely affected by COVID-19. With vegetables highly seasonal, with high labour needs, and given the perishability of fresh produce and the associated need for good storage and distribution logistics, COVID-19 poses particular risks for veg. Transport and quarantine restrictions are likely already limiting farmers’ access to agricultural inputs, such as seed, which must be accessible during planting season.

While we are not yet seeing widespread national disruptions in the availability of vegetables, traders’ access to traditional and local markets—where much fruit and vegetable produce in low-income countries is sold – is being limited.

The Scottish fish industry is hit hard as export markets collapse

According to the Fishermen’s Mission, a Christian welfare charity, the impact of COVID-19 on the Scottish fishing industry has led fisherman to seek help from food banks. The UK fishing industry is worth £989m annually, with Scottish vessels responsible for more than half of this sum. More than 70% of its catch is exported, mainly to Europe and Asia, but foreign and hospitality markets have collapsed in the crisis. While a much smaller retail market still exists for some fish, many supermarkets have shut their fish counters, reducing demand further. For high-value shellfish, such as crab and lobster, the market is now virtually non-existent.

Global organisations warn about the fragility of food systems

Price rises would have significant ramifications at a global level, impacting on all types of malnutrition. As COVID-19 and the economic response continue to spread, with the International Monetary Fund warning that the world may be on the brink of the worst recession since the Great Depression in the 1930s, several organisations have voiced concern that weaknesses in the current food system will be exacerbated.

A joint letter signed by NGOs, multinationals, farmers’ organisations, the UN Foundation, academics, and civil society groups urges governments not to introduce export bans and to support more sustainable food systems.

Unilever, Nestlé and PepsiCo, along with farmers’ organisations, the UN Foundation, academics, and several civil society groups, have written to world leaders, calling on them to keep borders open to trade in order to help society’s most vulnerable, and to invest in environmentally sustainable food production.

The open letter by the Food and Land Use coalition, ‘A Call to Action for World Leaders’, warn that food supplies could be “massively disrupted” due to measures put in place to control the spread of COVID-19.  They urge governments, businesses, civil society and international agencies to take urgent, coordinated action to prevent the COVID pandemic becoming a global food and humanitarian crisis. They recommend three main areas of focus for action, encompassing both short and long-term measures:

  1. Keep the supply of food flowing across the world – maintain open trade
  2. Scale support to the most vulnerable – ensure access to nutritious, affordable food for all
  3. Invest in sustainable, resilient food systems – sow seeds of recovery for people and planet.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies warns that the economic impact of COVID-19 will have long-term negative effects on health

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) is warning that the economic fallout could have “persistent negative health effects”. It says hundreds of thousands of people could develop chronic health conditions as a result the economy contracting, with unemployment and other financial concerns a cause of mental health problems.

In a briefing note the IFS cites research published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research estimating that a 1% fall in employment could lead to around a 2% increase in the prevalence of chronic illness. They note that government policy will have a key part to play in order to avoid a repeat of 2008, when the effects of the recession led to an estimated additional 900,000 people of working age suffering a chronic health condition, including mental health.

GLOPAN chairs warn that low and middle income countries are particularly vulnerable

The chairs of the Global Panel for Agriculture and Nutrition note that low- and middle-income countries are likely to be hit hardest by shocks to food and health systems. Travel restrictions, enforced business closures, social distancing and loss of income is a new burden for the poorest and most vulnerable families, who already lack purchasing power. The impact on diets through stalled food trade, higher prices and collapsing purchasing power may create a spike in all forms of undernutrition, including vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

Certainly there is precedent here, as in the global food price spikes of 2007/8 and 2011/12 when poorer households responded by reducing purchases of nutritious foods, whilst prioritising the consumption of lower quality staple foods that are usually cheaper than foods such as fruit, veg and protein. While food export bans introduced so far have been limited, national food security appears to be increasingly on the agenda, with reports suggesting Lebanon for example is considering importing wheat for the first time since 2014 given concern over the country’s food security.