Chain relief: who will fix the UK’s broken food supply system — and how?

The UK is facing a food waste crisis as a result of coronavirus-related disruption to supply chain distribution. Fixing it requires an all-hands-on-deck approach — but it’s the government who holds the ultimate power in ensuring farmers aren’t forced to put all their eggs in one basket. 

– Contributed by Gussy Aureli

What does 70 million meals look like? How much food even goes into 70 million meals? It’s the kind of scale that needs to be broken down into smaller parts, because in its entirety, it simply defies comprehension. It’s like being sat too close to your mate’s new (and frankly too-big) 4K widescreen TV, say, or coming face to face with a lasagne the size of Wembley Stadium. It’s too much for our eyes, and our minds, to take in.

And yet it’s something we need to get to grips with. Why? Because on an average day, it’s the amount of food served by the food service industry in the UK (accounting for 35% of all food consumption). It’s therefore the amount of food that could no longer be provided via the traditional channels when the industry shut down, overnight, in response to covid-19. Consequently, it’s also the amount of food that may now have to be thrown away due to disruptions to the supply chain: milk dumped in slurry lagoons, ale poured away, fish culled, cows slaughtered. For anyone who’s keeping track, it’s been estimated at a total cost of £30bn — and it’s leaving a lot of UK growers at risk of going under.

Turning on a dime

But with every crisis comes opportunity. UK farmers are currently lumbered with produce that has literally nowhere to go, facing decreasing demand, unreliable distribution infrastructure and necessarily restrictive processing requirements, but many are leveraging the model that’s being used to sell everything from razors and mattresses to fragrance and fashion: direct to consumer.

Capitalising on the agility their size affords, smaller British growers have taken produce intended for the restaurant industry and rerouted it to local delivery customers. And they’re diversifying their businesses in the process, whether it’s by changing crop plans to suit consumer needs, buying a van for deliveries, or sourcing additional produce for fruit and vegetable boxes — and that’s to say nothing of the digital strategies and IT solutions required to facilitate online ordering. Perhaps most  remarkable of all, it’s all happening at incredibly short notice, at a time of year that is traditionally labour-intensive and financially demanding.

Truth hurts

When the dust finally settles, talk must turn to mending the UK’s broken supply chain. It’s suffering from ‘worst chair in the café’ syndrome: fragile, structured in a way that often defies logic, and vulnerable to external pressure, it’s usable when there’s no alternative, but not to be relied upon in a crisis. And what makes matters worse is that the powers-that-be aren’t inclined to fix it, because they’ve got their own stool-related agenda to push. In an excoriating evaluation, Tim Lang, professor of food policy at London’s City University, told the Independent, “The government has vandalised the food services industry, which a third of British food goes through. That’s destroyed skills, capabilities, resources, facilities and catering’s very diverse supply lines. They’ve concentrated all food access through nine retailers, basically,” — and farmers have paid a price as a result.

Future proofing

For their part, the best thing that UK growers can do post Covid-19 is continue to embrace diversification. Consumer shopping habits have shifted, and the data implies they’re set to stay that way: more than a third of people have said they’re using small businesses more than ever before, and 89% said they intend to continue supporting their local food shops, butchers, farm shops and greengrocers, as well as home delivery services like fruit and vegetable boxes and milk delivery. By incorporating direct-to-consumer distribution, farmers have effectively doubled their routes to market — who can say no to that?

The cavalry must then come in the form of both the government and the consumer. For the former, this is legislation that encourages the decentralisation of the national food supply, support grants that will enable farmers to overcome the barriers to B2C selling they’ve encountered in the past, and an overhaul of farm-to-food-bank infrastructure.

Show your support

And the consumer’s role in all of this? Well, we’ve come full circle to disruption again. But it’s the good kind this time: consumers are in the unique position of being able to vote with their feet (or their thumbs). This means they have the power to have a significant, beneficial — and for the farmers, potentially career-saving — impact on supply and demand. Put simply, that means we should all shop local, shop independent, shop seasonal — and shout about it.

It’s all about starting that chain reaction.

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