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.

Click here to see our UK Food Tracker in full.

10 foods that may be impacted by the continuing impact of Covid-19 on global supply chains

Despite assurances from retailers that supermarket stock levels have returned to normal, COVID-19’s impact on global supply chains could become more serious over time. An article by The Grocer reviews 10 foods that may be more vulnerable to negative impacts, highlighting the complicated dependencies that could result from:

  • Agricultural labour shortages
  • Changing consumer demand
  • Potential for price volatility
  • Export restrictions from key producer countries.

Lockdowns in India and Kenya for example are placing many of the world’s teas under strain, while export restrictions and currency fluctuations have created upheaval in global rice markets and price surges. With the UK relying on imports from the EU and many other countries for many foods, the pandemic’s progress across the world is likely to continue to impact on UK food supplies in the months to come. We will be monitoring shifts in imports and exports of fruit and veg on the Food Foundation’s tracker going forward, with 84% of our fruit and 46% of our vegetables currently imported.


The weekly shop is back in fashion, says Tesco CEO

Dave Lewis, the outgoing Chief Executive of Tesco, has commented that people have reverted to shopping the way they did a decade ago by making one big weekly trip to the supermarket. With COVID-19 continuing to impact on consumer shopping behaviour, the trend in recent years for individuals (particularly in urban centres) to make a number of small shops every few days appears to have changed, likely due to social distancing measures. Dave Lewis said that the number of transactions in April at Tesco had nearly halved, but the size of the average basket had doubled. This statement is supported by recent data from Kantar, which also shows that the number of shopping trips has fallen to a record low despite the size of shops increasing

Sales of frozen foods surge in the weeks leading up to lockdown, with frozen veg performing particularly well


Further sales data released by the British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF) for the four weeks ending 22nd March shows sales of frozen food rocketed as consumers stocked up in anticipation of social distancing and lockdown measures coming into force. Total sales increased 28.3% in volume and 28.1% in value compared to the same period of time the year before in 2019. Sales of frozen veg were particularly buoyant, increasing by 42.5%, with frozen savoury food up 36.7% and ice-cream up 5.4%. There was a 68% increase in sales of frozen peas, with one retailer reporting a 93% increase in sales of frozen broccoli. The BFFF’s chief executive said that ‘supply remains in good shape although supply chains are at full stretch’, with demand ‘continuing to remain high’.

Executive director of the U.N. World Food Program warns of hunger pandemic

The Executive Director of the UN World Food Program has warned of a potential hunger pandemic in an address to the U.N. Security Council. Observing that ‘what this pandemic has caused is nothing short of a global crisis, the likes of which we have not seen since World War II”, David Beasley said that “as a global crisis, it requires a global response, especially for the tens of millions whose lives will be crushed by the socioeconomic impact of this crisis.”  With many already facing food insecurity as a result of conflict and famine, WFP’s analysis shows that 300,000 could starve to death every single day for the next three months, warning that we could be looking at famine in about three dozen countries.


Professor Chris Whitty warns social distancing may last until the end of the year   

Professor Chris Whitty warned that the UK may have to live with some form of social distancing for the rest of the yearWith trials currently underway for a vaccine, Whitty advised that it is unlikely that approved drugs or vaccines will be available in 2020. As suchProfessor Whitty said it was “wholly unrealistic” to expect life would suddenly return to normal and warned the UK may have to live with some socially disruptive measures for the rest of the year. The latest figures show a further 759 people have died with the virus in UK hospitals, bringing the total number of deaths to 18,100. 

The UK’s inflation rate fell to 1.5% in March, largely driven by falls in the price of clothing and fuel ahead of the coronavirus lockdown 

The UK’s Consumer Price Index shows the UK’s inflation rate fell to 1.5% from 1.7% in February, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Although the data was collected by March 17th before the more stringent lockdown measures were brought in on the 23rd March, the drop has been put down to falls in the price of clothing and fuel as awareness of COVID-19 and anticipation of lockdown grew.  

Sarah Hewin, senior economist at Standard Chartered bank, told the BBC’s Today programme: “Normally low inflation would be welcomed as it means people have effectively more to spend in the shop but these are not normal circumstances. The fall in inflation, in addition to low energy prices, is an indication of the steep recession we will see in the coming months.” The government’s inflation target is 2%. 

Report from UN World Food Programme and others warns 265m people are facing acute risk of malnutrition with Covid-19 ‘potentially catastrophic’

A new report from the Food Security Information Network, the Global Report on Food Crises 2020, warns that the upheaval that has been set in motion by the COVID-19 pandemic may push even more families and communities into deeper distress. The Report from the UN World Food Programme and others warns 135 million people are currently facing acute risk of malnutrition with COVID-19 ‘potentially catastrophic’ for pushing more into this category. The Network joins a host of other high-profile humanitarian organisations in warning that Covid-19 will accelerate high levels of global food insecurity, with coronavirus posing a particular risk for exacerbating issues in low and middle income countries.

FDF publishes letter calling for gov to reject trade restrictions 

Organisations including the Agricultural Industries Confederation and the British Frozen Food Federation have signed a letter urging the government to ensure critical imports and exports of food and drink continue throughout the crisis. 

The letter urges the government to note the role of food and farming in national infrastructure, writing “Now more than ever, it is critical that we keep imports and exports of food and drink flowing. Essential movements of ingredients and raw materials must continue so that we can supply consumers across the UK.” Although to date not many countries have imposed export bans, there is growing concern from humanitarian organisations that export bans will lead to increases in food prices as seen during the 2008 financial crisis.

The Lancet launches CoHere, a post pandemic recovery plan

Beyond the deaths directly caused by COVID-19, the indirect effect of the virus on the health of the population is increasingly causing concern.

An editorial in The Lancet debates whether the cure will prove worse than the disease, exploring the narrative that mistakenly sees a division between health and the economy and concluding that “there should be no trade-off between health and wealth.”

The editorial calls for a post-COVID-19 health recovery programme—CoHERE – noting the need to unify not only the global response to the pandemic, but also a global commitment to mitigate its damaging aftermath and referring to the IFS’s briefing note linking economic recessions to ill health.

Despite the numerous risks posed by COVID-19 to the food system, with the effects on economically vulnerable groups already beginning to be seen and with many more at risk of food insecurity as the economy contracts, it is interesting to see the theme of future food system resilience and ‘building back better’ starting to emerge. A recent editorial by Hubbub, the environmental charity, provides a useful round-up of some of the more optimistic opinions on the potential long-term impact of COVID-19 on the food system.