• Written by Andrew Davis
  • Posted on Jun 09, 2020
  • Articles

Like many other aspects of our lives, the coronavirus pandemic has had a major impact on our food system.  The closure of pubs and restaurants and the cancellation of all major events has resulted in significant disruption to demand and supply chains.  The problems surrounding Freshways, the diary that concentrated on supply the catering trade, is just one example.  Nevertheless, with a few minor exceptions, there has still been a normal range of foods available in the shops.

A less obvious impact has been the delay in the publication of the interim report of the National Food Strategy due this spring.  Last June, Michael Gove, then Secretary of State at Defra, asked Henry Dimbleby to chair a review into this country’s food system and he drew together a committee to produce the first national food strategy for 75 years.  His final report was due by the end of this year with an interim paper due this spring but the whole process has been extended because consideration must be given to the changes to the food system made inevitable by the pandemic.

Henry Dimbleby spoke at the Oxford Farming Conference in January and recently appeared in a CLA webinar to talk about the work of his committee.  He described our food system as miraculous as it feeds the nation, looks after the environment and creates one in seven of all employment in this country.  Nevertheless he identified three areas of challenge to which solutions must be found.  These are the degradation of the environment caused by intensive farming, the health of our population with increasing incidence of obesity, diabetes and other diseases, and food security, particularly in the context of climate change and other disruptive influences including the current pandemic.

He said that this crisis represents a fundamental change in our society as there will be a new normal once it is passed with dramatic differences to our daily lives.  Some sectors of the economy may recover substantially to former levels but others will not, particularly the hospitality sector which is being obliterated.  Some hotels, restaurants, pubs, theatres and other venues will reopen but many, perhaps 50%, will be bankrupt once the furlough scheme winds up.

The global food system is relatively unscathed but locally there has been an almost total cessation of economic activity.  The biggest concern as the crisis developed was the short-term supply chain but the worst has been avoided as fresh food from home and abroad is still available in shops.  Diversity of supply has been reduced but it is important to food security so we need to think how that can be rebuilt.

There is a new emphasis on health and a determination to tackle those conditions that have exacerbated Covid-19 such as obesity, diabetes and heart problems.  Health problems may be a greater priority in recession with a predicted five million unemployed by the end of the summer.  This has led to the Government becoming the most interventionist in our history with over half the working population now on universal credit, on furlough or directly employed by the state.  In one sense this is helpful as public opinion is more likely to tolerate the Government taking decisions that affect our daily lives unthinkable only a few months ago.

The question of the standards to which we farm is conceptually very simple.  We have some of the highest environmental and animal welfare standards in the world and it makes no sense to dilute them.  In its manifesto the Government was very clear that it will not allow imports of lower standard even though it refuses to enshrine that in legislation.  It is a keynote of agricultural policy, without it nothing makes sense; improving our environment only to import produce from countries that degrade their own environment or to force our farmers to produce at higher, more expensive standards only for them to be undercut by cheaper imports.  Besides which having cheaper food that causes environmental degradation and poor animal welfare is no answer to poverty.

The debate about the consumption of meat is complex and Henry Dimbleby hopes to debunk a few myths in his report, for example the different polluting effects of carbon dioxide and methane.  Methane disappears from the atmosphere in twelve years so a low level of emissions will not increase levels.  People are cooking more during the lockdown and relying less on prepared meals which must be encouraged.

Technology will play a huge role in the future of farming including gene editing.  If it helps farmers to produce high quality food with a lower impact on the environment, it will become more accepted.  It is important to produce enough food, even a strategic stored surplus, to bring supply diversity and to ensure against disruptions of the food chain.

As the committee has been seeking evidence, it has consulted widely amongst the general public.  The recommendations of the report will thus have a level of public support which should encourage the Government to adopt them.  The delay in the report is regrettable but the fact that lessons from the current pandemic will be considered makes it even more valuable.  To that extent, before and after sections would have highlighted the impact and perhaps made implementation more compelling.  When it is finally published, it will be a fascinating read and may have very wide-reaching implications for the future of our food system.