Global Agriculture

Why Covid is not a good stress test of our food supply chains’ resilience

“There is an old adage that says if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The first task for policymakers is to understand that, in spite of the mask of resilience it wears, our food system is broken and highly vulnerable” By Mike Rivington

21 December, UK: Will there be turkeys for Christmas? In spite of some likely strains due to Brexit, labour shortages and the familiar yet ever-evolving disruptions of COVID-19, the answer is a fairly safe yes. Yet this is perhaps surprising. 

When we set out to study the impact of COVID-19 on the UK’s food security, our assumption was that the food system would struggle to adapt to changes in production and demand and that the pandemic could lead to extensive shortages and rising prices. Yet, while COVID-19 has caused havoc in some supply chains (remember the fight for the last toilet roll?) and contributed to significant suffering in sections of society, ultimately food production was less affected than we thought it would be. The just-in-time, efficiency-focused model of supply held up in the face of a demand shock, supermarkets were never busier, and the food system coped.

Policymakers, consumers and businesses may be tempted to interpret this as a sign of long-term food security and resilience. That would be a mistake. As a stress test, COVID-19 is likely to prove deceptive and could be dangerously misleading for the UK’s preparedness and ability to withstand future production shocks from the growing and multiple threats posed by climate change and environmental degradation.

This is because COVID-19 produced a demand-side, as opposed to a supply-side, shock. Locked down consumers changed their behaviour in response to a wildly altered economic and social context, but the fundamentals of food supply didn’t alter radically.  With its focus on short-term production and efficiency, the UK’s food system was well placed to respond and disruption was minimal.  

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However, as the impacts of climate change and environment damage begin to multiply, the UK – and indeed the global – food system will experience a very different set of stresses, for which it is vastly underprepared. Degrading soil health, depleted water reserves and more extreme weather will disrupt long-established crop growth patterns and yields and increasingly impact supply. As nearly half of the UK’s food is imported, our ability to meet growing demand, whilst also trying to mitigate the food system’s sizable contribution to total carbon emissions, will be severely strained.

While it’s good that the pandemic didn’t cause more disruption to the availability of food, we may have been better served by a wakeup call that revealed the need for fundamental reform. Instead it has further entrenched a ‘business as usual’ attitude from policymakers and the major players in the food system, who continue to prioritise profit and ever-greater efficiency over the need to increase resilience and reduce the negative impacts of food production on human and environment health.

We need to learn our lessons. Warnings about the prospect of a pandemic, issued by many scientists, went unheeded for decades. Similarly, the starkest warnings about the worst impacts of climate change and environmental degradation were until recently dismissed as alarmist hyperbole. We are at risk of making the same mistake again regarding food security. 

The good news is that we can produce enough food whilst improving diet and protecting the environment. To do so, however, requires a few incontrovertible truths. We must diversify crops and land use – growing more fruit, vegetables, roughage and plant-based proteins – and consume fewer sugars and fats. We will all have to eat less meat, a shift that will disproportionately impact rural communities and agricultural businesses. We will have to accept that eating whatever we want, whenever we want will not always be possible.

Prices will also have to rise for foods that damage human and environmental health. And, for a period at least, large producers and shareholders will have to accept smaller dividends whilst shouldering some of the cost of transformation which will, in the longer-term, protect shareholder value, mitigate against the worst impacts of climate change and address the growing divide between rich and poor in terms of access to good quality, healthy food.

The solutions to the coming food crises are as interdependent, as are the causes. Everyone within the food system must work together to transform the system, and rebalance the scales between technical efficiency and social and environmental resilience. It is in all of our interests to accept and invest in a shift away from overconsumption and the production of more and more food at the lowest possible price, towards reforms that protect the environment, prioritise human health and mitigate the inevitable future shocks to supply. As a starting point, the food sector should develop its own plan to reduce carbon emissions, as countries are required to do as part of the UN Climate Change Conference process.

There is an old adage that says if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The first task for policymakers is to understand that, in spite of the mask of resilience it wears, our food system is broken and highly vulnerable. Only then can they set about fixing it.