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commonweal
18.05.20

Food For Thought

Volunteer Researcher Patrick Wiggins shares his thoughts on the potential for the Covid pandemic to disrupt food supply chains as well as what could be done to make them more robust in future.

The Covid 19 pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of our current economic system in so many ways. From the inverse value we have attached to what are now recognised as key workers, often the lowest paid, with the most precarious employment contracts and least likely to be able work from home during a pandemic, to the neo liberal obsession with ever longer and complex supply chains to squeeze ‘value’ out of manufacture and commerce. From care workers on minimum wage to car parts zig zagging across the world in ever lengthening supply chains we have an economic system that has been exposed as no longer ‘fit’ by Covid 19. Never mind ‘reset’ the economy needs rethinking.

Food, of course, has been and always will be at the heart of our economy. Although it has been unfashionable (other than in times of national crisis) to talk of food security it is one of the foundations of society and Government responsibility. The food system encapsulates many of the issues exposed by Covid 19 and illustrates the vulnerabilities we currently face.

The evolution of our food system has mirrored social and economic changes over the centuries.

A (very) long time ago I undertook research into economic and technological change in the UK food system. In particular I looked at employment and how it shifted across the system as capital sought to extend the ‘supply chain’ to extract more value from the processes of growing, preparing and placing food onto our tables.

During the industrial revolution changes in agriculture helped fuel the move from the land to cities and into manufacturing.  Often forgotten was the role of domestic service in the preparation and serving of food, with millions, particularly women, employed in these roles up until the second world war. The war of course changed everything, politically, socially and economically with women increasingly moving from (paid and unpaid) domestic service into more wide-ranging employment in manufacture and services.
At the same time technological change throughout the food system allowed the growth of preparation of food to take place outside of the home which with, and alongside the emergence of ‘fast food’ and the opening up of global supply.  Has led to us increasingly becoming disconnected from where our food comes from and what is involved in its preparation as capital has sought to extend and take value out of each part of the food system.

Currently it is estimated that just 5-6 % of gross value added generated by the food system in the UK goes to primary producers – farmers (Prof. Tim Lang ‘Feeding Britain’ Pelican 2020). The rest is taken by processors, distributors, retailers and food service businesses. Nearly 50% of the UK’s food supply is now imported. The prevailing view for so long has been that the source of our food doesn’t matter, that it’s up to the market to deliver cheap food irrespective of wider consequences of health, environment and security. It was even suggested by Dr Tim Leunig, a senior UK Treasury advisor in February 2020 that the food sector was not critically important to the UK economy and that agriculture and fisheries ‘certainly aren’t’ . Driving down the cost of food of itself will not resolve diet related health inequalities which are prevalent in an economy with increasingly insecure employment and downward pressure on wages. The growth of the gig economy and 10 years of austerity has meant for many income levels have not yet returned to 2008 levels and reduced wage security.

And, of course, it’s not that the market efficiently delivers and distributes food. It is estimated that globally nearly half of all food is wasted mostly by agriculture and supermarkets (Jason Hickel). Notwithstanding the obscenity of wasted food whilst there are millions who are suffering from malnutrition and shortages, there is a huge cost in terms of carbon emissions and environmental degradation.

The ever lengthening food supply chain has consequences for health and the environment as well as increasing the risk of disruption to supplies either from events such as Covid 19 or from self-imposed political decisions such as pursuing a ‘hard Brexit’ (with all its implications for agriculture, fishing, food standards and just in time supply chains).
Covid 19 brings this into sharp focus. The Food Foundation estimate that as many as 5 million people in the UK living with children in their households are experiencing food insecurity in the Covid 19 lockdown, with as many as 1.5million missing food for at least one day and up to 3 million experiencing hunger.

Concerns about Britain’s food supply where raised as part of the no deal Brexit planning in 2019. Who can forget the UK Government’s Brexit planning fiasco with the commissioning of non-existent ferries from a company with no previous experience in shipping to bolster food supply chains in the event of no deal Brexit?.

Brexit will not just disrupt supply chains it will also impact migration. The reduction of people coming to live in the UK since the 2016 referendum has major consequences for the food sector. ONS Data indicates that 50% of jobs in the UK food chain are held by non UK nationals (mostly from the EEA, as well as 39% of logistics and wholesale sectors employment. The new ‘points based’ immigration system classifies this type of work as low skilled (as well of course as many care workers) raising significant barriers to those wishing to join the UK’s food workforce.

An estimated 90,000 ‘crop pickers’ are required to collect the UK’s fruit and vegetable harvest. The impacts of Brexit, the UK’s new immigration policy and Covid 19 has led to serious concerns of harvests being left to rot in the fields as the Governments calls for a new ‘land army’ (comprising the unemployed and furloughed) has proved unsuccessful. It’s not just in the UK that there is the prospect of food dumping there are reports too of food dumping in the US as demands drops, not because of need, as incomes fall and unemployment rises.

It is hard not to conclude that the system is breaking and a new approach to food needs to be adopted in the post Covid 19 emerging economy.
The question is what should this look like?

A key word in the post Covid 19 vocabulary will be resilience. Building an economy that is based on need, social justice, well-being, with a minimal environmental footprint and that is resilient. We can, literally, no longer afford to return to the neo liberal economic dogma that has dominated Government policy and actions over the last decades which have led to growing inequalities, economic ‘shocks’ and environmental damage.

For food this will mean putting in place proper food planning that seeks to ensure a shortening of the supply chain, ensuring greater security of supply and access (through security of employment and initiatives such as universal basic income), whilst mandating greater environmental stewardship of Scotland’s farm land and agricultural sector, and recognising the link between public health and the food economy.

Common Weal’s ‘The Common Home Plan’ sets out important steps as to how this might be achieved. The establishment of a National Food Agency to oversee the transition to a fairer, and sustainable, food system through encouraging the diversification into new forms of growing and processing techniques that support sustainability of supply and environment. A key objective would be to eradicate food inequalities through a coherent national strategy rather than, as at present, effectively outsourcing that responsibility to supermarkets.

This would be a good place to start as we look to rebuild the economy #everythingmustchange