COVID-19 and Food Security

Professor Rachel Norman, Chair in Food Security & Sustainability, Faculty of Natural Sciences, University of Stirling

Agricultural workers harvesting produce

Professor Rachel Normal discuses how COVID-19 is impacting food security. The virtual lecture is available to watch online, and a transcript is provided below.

Hello. My name’s Rachel Norman, and I’m Chair of Food Security and Sustainability at the University of Stirling, and what I wanted to do was spend about ten minutes talking to you about how COVID-19 is impacting on food security, both in the UK and more globally. So, bearing in mind that I film-recorded this in the middle of April and this is a very fast-moving world, things could change, but as things stand at the moment, this is what I’m going to talk to you about.

There are four parts to the presentation. We’ll talk about where we were before COVID-19, the current UK supply chain and what’s happened over the past month or so, countries with less infrastructure than ours, and then think about those longer term impacts and how we’re going to recover from this.

Food security is a very complicated problem, but basically it’s about everybody being able to afford food, being able to access that food, that there’s enough of it, and that it’s nutritious and it’s safe. There are lots of different things to think about in terms of people having physical and economic access to that food. So, in September, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, who record this data, thought 41 countries were in need of food assistance, and there were a number of reasons for that, including war, disease and climate issues. Globally, there are about 800 million people who are undernourished, and 650 million who are obese, and lots more who are overweight.

There are two types of malnourishment, those who are not getting enough food and those who are eating too much of the wrong kind of food, and lots of countries have both of those groups of people in. So, it’s not that that’s split by country, lots of places have both of those problems going on simultaneously. From the UK’s point of view, we’re not self-sufficient in food and we import around 50% of what we eat, so we rely on other people growing and producing our food. The UK supply chain supports about 4 million jobs, so it’s an active and productive sector in the UK, but a lot of what we produce is exported as well.

A small number of companies, around about eight, control a large proportion of our food supply, and we eat a lot of calories outside the home, so that’s in cafes, restaurants and, work canteens. So, about 30% of the calories we eat are outside the home, which is huge, and lots of people are using food banks, and that’s been increasing over the past ten years. In 2019, it was approximated that 1.6 million people were using food banks, and that had increased by 250,000 since the previous year. So, lots of disparities in who gets access to food. It’s not that there’s a shortage of food; it’s that not everyone can afford it.

The impact of coronavirus

Then, COVID-19 hit, and things have changed in the past month significantly. As many of you will know, there’ve been empty shelves in the supermarkets, and on 15th March, these were the kind of news stories that we were seeing, that we could face rationing, supermarkets were preventing you buying too many of one thing and asking shoppers to be considerate. Supermarkets sent out a letter on 15th March that said, ‘There is enough food for everyone but we all need to buy less at once and just not panic.’ ‘Buy what we need for now, and then when we come back next week, there’ll be enough,’ was their messaging. That was in response to these empty shelves.

Scotland’s Rural College put out a blog on 27th March, proposing that-, and there’ve also been lots of other people who’ve worked on this, but their three reasons for the demand in supermarkets being so high is partly that people are eating at home rather than eating out, and they’re going fewer times to the supermarket and buying more when they’re there, so that’s increasing the demand. Then, there is panic buying of some products, and that’s a combination of media coverage and the sort of language used to build up the panic.

So, toilet rolls, for example, makes absolutely no sense for there to be stockpiling of toilet rolls for this kind of disease. It’s not a disease that requires extra toilet roll, but if you think there’s a shortage then you’re more likely to buy it when you don’t actually need it. So, they thought these three things combined were really the reason the shelves were emptying. So, it isn’t just panic buying, it’s that people are needing to buy more. There are some other people who’ve provided evidence to back that up. On 31st March, the UK supermarkets put out their figures on sale growth over the past four weeks, and they found, not surprisingly, March was the biggest month on record, but they were showing that households were spending an extra £63 each, which again, given that they’re not eating out, is not an excessive amount for most households to spend in a month, but there were 42 million additional trips to food retailers. That’s why the shelves were emptying. That comes from a tweet from the Retail Editor of The Times, but she’d got better data than me on that.

Then, there’s been lots of speculation about the longer term impact and whether we’ll be able to keep filling shelves. Now, this was something that was discussed around Brexit. Would we have the people to come and pick the fruit and veg that are grown? That’s also obviously been exacerbated by COVID-19, so there is talk of a land army and people needed to go and pick the fruit and vegetables so we are able to eat those in the future. So, we’ll see what happens to the UK supply chain, but there’s lots of speculation about what might happen. That’s in a country where we have good supply chains and we have supermarkets who can access food.

Countries with less infrastructure

What about countries with less infrastructure? What we know from previous disruptions to food supplies is that there are very common patterns that occur. If we think about the Ebola outbreak, floods and droughts, or war, or political unrest, they often cause the same kinds of problems with supply chains in a variety of countries, so there are lots of examples of these. For example, the transportation might be reduced because roads are blocked or because people don’t want to travel to different parts of the country that are less safe than where they are at the moment. That’s not helped by, because of those reasons, markets might close. So, if even if you could transport the food, you don’t have a mechanism to sell it. So, there are examples of countries where the north of the country, for example, has been able to produce plenty of food, but the south can’t access that because of these transportation and market issues.

Perhaps less obviously, access to veterinary medicines and vets becomes more limited, animal feed prices increase and so keeping livestock becomes more difficult. Fuel prices increase, which means you can’t afford the diesel for your tractor, for example, or even if you were producing the food, you can’t necessarily transport it where it needs to be, and there’s a reduction in available labour, either because people are ill or because they’re not wanting to travel and pick the food, as we discussed earlier.

So, all those things are pretty common problems that we’ve seen in other systems, and there’s no reason to believe that won’t happen again in this outbreak. However, there are additional problems with COVID-19 that we need to think about, and particularly for people in poverty who live a subsistence lifestyle, they get daily wages that pay for the food for that day. So, they don’t have the capacity or even the facilities, like a fridge, to store food. So, they can’t stockpile food and keep several days’ worth, they have to go out everyday and work.

Often for people, hand-washing might be limited, so while that’s been sold to us as the big way of controlling the spread of disease, not everyone can stand and sing happy birthday and wash their hands because they don’t have that running water. Social distancing can be difficult if you live in a crowded space and you haven’t got the space to do that, and on top of that you need to go out and work for the reasons I discussed earlier. So, that can be really difficult. Lockdown can be impossible in some places, and then if you tie that to the lack of infrastructure or political will and ability to support people in lockdown, then that can be a real problem in a variety of countries. The FAO have got a discussion document where they’ve got lots of frequently asked questions, and they’ve identified some of the solutions that might help support countries with these problems.

The future?

So, what’s going to happen in the future? So, I’m not going to tell you what’s going to happen in the future, I’m just going to ask lots of questions that we’re really interested in doing research on, and finding out, and looking at how things change over time. So, we’ll look at three different perspectives. From the individual point of view, we need to think about, will we be eating more locally-produced or retail food in the future? There are lots of stories of local shops having better stock than supermarkets, certainly at the beginning of the outbreak, and lots of also examples of, in rural areas in particular, local stores supporting communities really well. So, will we remain loyal to them? Are we going to be eating less, or wasting less, or preparing more food instead of eating out? All of those things together would make our food system more sustainable, so that’s something that we want to be working towards. That’s what we need to do in the future, so will this make us change our behaviour in that positive way?

Or, at the end of the day, are we going to be so excited about being able to eat out again that we all rush out and start buying takeaways and unhealthy food again? Will we slip back into our old ways? That’s going to be really interesting to see how long term that behaviour change is. Culturally, there are lots of examples of different behaviours becoming more or less acceptable and then people changing in response to that cultural push. Smoking, for example, has significantly reduced over the past 40 years, drink driving is down, recycling has increased and plastic waste is something that we’ve seen change in the past two or three years, that there’s been a cultural push to reduce that, and more and more people are thinking about that. So, will we have similar cultural changes driven by the things that we’ve learnt during this outbreak? For example, will there be less food waste? Will we stop long supply chains? Will we be less keen to eat out-of-season food? We’ll have to see, but can we also push people in those directions? Again, those are all things that would help our food system become more sustainable. Finally, what infrastructure and policy do we need to put in there to make these behaviour changes stick if they’re positive? Are we going to emerge from this in a world where supermarkets still hold much of the power, or will we be doing more local shopping, going to more small-scale retailers, and will we as a country have to be more self-sufficient so we can be more resilient? Well, hopefully we’ll find out, and hopefully we will move towards a more sustainable food system.

I hope you found this interesting, and thank you for listening.

Professor Rachel Norman, May 2020

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