Bare supermarket shelves back in March were restocked by April and alarm quickly subsided. Panic buyers calmed themselves. Stock pilers either felt replete or were shamed back into normalcy. But what of food security?
A procession of experts, officials and heads of industry assured us that the supply chain was resilient. Most of the indications, apart from the curious case of flour as some of us baked our way through lockdown, and the droll saga of loo roll, seemed to support these reassurances. Crucially the food system appeared robust and besides, food insecurity is only a problem in developing countries isn’t it?
Back in 1996 a World Food Summit led by the Food and Agriculture Organization sought to widen the debate on food security by recognising the centrality of nutrition to dietary needs. Seeing the growth of food banks in many richer nations alongside an obesity and a diabetes crisis affecting both rich and poor, the concept of food and nutrition security or FNS touched a nerve and is now commonly applied to the global North including the UK. The rationale is that simply having enough food, while critical, is not sufficient. Food also needs to be of the right sort and used in the right way for everyone to thrive. FNS has four central pillars: Availability of an appropriate quantity of food is essential; people also need adequate income and other resources to Access that food; Utilization must ensure that food is converted into an adequate dietary intake effectively; finally the food system must have Stability to guarantee the other three pillars at all times. The global challenges for FNS were already immense before COVID came along but there is little doubt that food and nutrition insecurity is now on the rise.
How COVID has compromised Food and Nutrition Security
In normal times millions of workers, from farm to fork, do their jobs with an efficiency shaped by market forces across highly complex supply chains. Farmers and farm workers, excluding subsistence farmers, produce food to order for wholesalers and retailers. Food is perishable and needs to pass through the supply chain in a timely manner otherwise it goes to waste. For fresh produce including meat, fruit and vegetables the window of opportunity is critical. Delay the harvest because seasonal farm labourers are prevented from travelling and the crop is spoiled; store produce for too long in warehouses or on quaysides awaiting shipment because of lockdowns and slowdowns and food is ruined; reduce the capacity of processing plants with social distancing, furlough or quarantine and both input and output falls; shutdown restaurants and food outlets for any length of time and food cannot be easily rerouted to the consumer. Analysts express this use-by date constraint associated with many elements of the food system as a requirement for high temporal coordination.
Profit margins are also often tight. Interruptions in the supply chain add cost; recessionary effects – unemployment, general belt-tightening by shoppers fearing worsening prospects or worse, being laid off – suppress those margins. Remove millions of workers from the normal economy and the fragility of the food system soon becomes a grave concern. Who will pick the fruit, drive the truck, operate the storage, the slaughterhouses, the processing plants, the markets – and who will have the money to buy the produce? During pandemic times all four pillars of FNS are challenged as domino effects and blockages compounded by Brexit and a Climate Emergency, disrupt processes at different points of the supply chain.
This little piggy stayed at home
In the US there has been a 40% reduction in the capacity of the pork supply chain due to COVID-related plant closure or restricted operation. Meat processing factories have been identified as high-risk environments subject to emergency measures. Within these facilities, highly sophisticated production cycles only accept animals at precise weights and uniform specifications compatible with processing and packaging lines. A just-in-time business model locks suppliers including individual farmers, processors, and resellers into inflexible arrangements that, in good times, are mutually beneficial. Between April and September an estimated 10 million pigs were eliminated from the US pork supply chain. Resultant higher prices have reduced the ability of some families, particularly those affected by COVID poverty, to purchase meat.
Crying over spilt milk
Pork is but one ingredient in a smorgasbord of food types that are variously affected by the COVID economic slump. From cabbages to caviar food systems are honed to maximising profits, reducing costs (especially inventory) and increasing efficiency by adapting processes to exploit the normal environment. When COVID cases forced the closure of the 2 Sisters Food Group’s poultry processing plant at Coupar Angus in August, it forced Scotland’s poultry farmers to look south of the border for processing facilities and exposed Scotland’s lack of food processing infrastructure. Scottish milk producers made headlines in April by pouring thousands of litres of uncollected milk onto land as restaurant and café demand collapsed. In the case of flour, mills were slow to increase supplies to retail consumers who make up a lowly 4% of a market dominated by commercial bakeries and restaurants. Packaging and distribution operations were simply not fleet of foot.
Supply Chain or Food Network
Through the metaphor of a chain the weaknesses of individual elements of the food system are apparent. But the global food system can also be thought of as a complex network and this lens emphasises how new connections are possible. As one market closes others may become more important or newly available and historically the system has recovered from shocks. A post COVID UK may become more self-sufficient, both importing and exporting less food. A new localism may emerge with shorter supply chains exploiting opportunities within a Green Recovery by reducing food miles. The rural workforce could be given a boost by retraining casualties of COVID unemployment with new green jobs planting trees and restoring peatlands, activities where a lack of boots on the ground currently hamper efforts to reach climate change mitigation targets. The abrupt cessation of international labour flows may force a fundamental re-evaluation of food and ecosystem services leading to an improvement of pay and conditions throughout the food and farming sectors and improving the national diet. Alternatively, technology may come to the rescue with innovation creating new efficiencies. However, making a win-win out of a global disaster will be a tough ask. To have a more resilient food system the just-in-time paradigm needs to be broken and higher redundancy (in the engineering sense) with backup and failsafe components is required ensuring that shocks do not lead directly to greater food insecurity. Moving to a new paradigm is never straightforward. Reforming the UK food system will require strategic planning. One great way to kick start the reform process is through scenario planning.
Scenario Planning – where do we want to be?
Scenario Planning is a form of risk management. By projecting or envisaging a future in which current trends have played-out in different ways, planners are able to articulate risks and opportunities that can be mitigated or seized respectively. A variety of approaches can be used but two notable thinkers paved the way for many of the techniques currently used. Gaston Berger (1896-1960) a pioneering French futurist developed the Prospective school to study the ‘scientific and political foundations of the future’ while his contemporary, Herman Khan, dared to ‘think the unthinkable’ by planning how the US might survive a nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Scenario planning about the UK food system can underpin a national debate about where we want to be by 2030 and help us strategize to maximise our prospects of getting there. Thinking about the UK food system in the decades to come by building plausible ‘what if’ scenarios, can help us to get to a better place by thinking about different possible destinations and importantly, helping us to figure out what we need to do now to set us on a sensible course. We ought to be planning for a future food system in which a vaccine did not arrive in the nick of time in case that is the future that awaits us; we ought to consider how our food system can respond to the Climate Emergency while unemployment figures climb; or how we avert increasing dependency on food banks amidst rising food prices. Strategic thinking can be at odds with the modus operandi of political systems focussed on election cycles but is nevertheless essential given the scale of the predicament. No-one knows what the future holds and some of our fears will never come to pass, but, as Tolkien observed, “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”
Garnett, P., B. Doherty and T. Heron (2020). “Vulnerability of the United Kingdom’s food supply chains exposed by COVID-19.” Nature Food 1(6): 315-318. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-020-0097-7
Ghamari-Tabrizi, S. (2005). The worlds of Herman Kahn : the intuitive science of thermonuclear war. Cambridge, Mass. ; London, Harvard University Press.