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.

French champagne sector suffers in spite of a good harvest due to social distancing measures globally

Despite near perfect harvest conditions the impact of social distancing on gatherings and business events have led to a sharp drop in demand for France’s fiercely protected champagne industry. Rising tensions have been reported ahead of a meeting on 18 August, when a decision must be made on how many champagne grapes each of the roughly 15,000 growers is allowed to put on the market. The situation is an interesting demonstration of the effect Covid-19 is having on supply chains, with changing demand and labour shortages affecting growers more this year than adverse weather conditions or logistic restrictions. 

UK officially in recession for the first time in 11 years

The UK officially entered an economic recession on the 12th of August following two consecutive quarters of economic decline. Between April and June the economy shrank by 20.4% compared to the first three months of the year as the impact of Covid-19 took hold. However, on a month-on-month basis, the economy grew by 8.7% in June, building on growth in May and suggesting a slow but positive recovery following lockdown.

More job losses are expected following the end of the government’s furlough scheme in October. 

New report calls on Government to build on their obesity strategy by investing in a transformative Food and Agriculture Sector Deal.

A new report by the think-tank Demos has called on the government to introduce more interventionist reforms of the food sector, finding that even before Covid-19 some 20 million in the UK were unable to afford healthier food with 19 million unable to find healthy foods available in shops close to their home. Focusing on the barriers to healthy eating, the report finds that the three main drivers that consumers say push them towards unhealthier foods are: taste (43%), cost (34%) and ease (34%). The report recommends subsidies of more healthy foods (such as veg and tinned tomatoes), more investment in meat alternatives, and a levy on processed meats. 

5 ways to reboot the food economy post Covid-19

In a recent comment piece, Professor Corinna Hawkes from the Food Policy Centre at City University has highlighted the tensions between health and the economy, apparent in both the economic fallout of global Covid-19 lockdowns and in the challenge of regulating the food sector. Professor Hawkes outlines her top five recommendations for changing the food system in the wake of Covid-19 

1) Better financing for healthy foods  

2) Making junk food less attractive  

3) Making health a core business objective  

4)  New and improved metrics for assessing business success, referencing the Food Foundation work on metrics for the food industry (see our latest dashboard here) 

5) Better use of public procurement 

The Frozen food category continues to see strong sales

Nomad Foods, the owners of frozen food brands such as Birds Eye and Iglo, reported a revenue increase of 10.5% for the first quarter of 2020 as citizen stocked up their freezers amid lockdowns and social distancing measures.  

What’s more, the company have also increased their earnings forecast for the year, predicting a long-term shift towards frozen foods among consumers in light of frozen food sales remaining strong in quarter two of this year (April to June). “The impact of COVID-19 has undeniably accelerated our top and bottom line results due in large part to an influx of new consumers discovering our brands and significant repeat behaviour since the start of the pandemic”, said Nomad Food’s CEO commenting on the financial results.  

Across the UK, Italy and Germany, strong growth has been seen among millennials in particular, with frozen food also seen as an affordable option ahead of a likely global recession.

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.