Empty supermarket shelves during the current COVID-19 crisis have been a stark reminder of the importance, and perhaps fragility, of our food supply chains. For the first time in over a generation in the UK, it has been conceivable that there might not be enough food to go around.
And so our event with Henry Dimbleby, the lead of the National Food Strategy – the first independent review of England’s entire food system for 75 years – could not have been more relevant or timely. The online discussion provided an opportunity for senior business leaders to hear more about how the strategy is developing, how it has been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, and to reflect on the wider implications for business.
Notwithstanding dystopian scenes of empty supermarket shelves we heard that the global food system has been largely resilient, thanks to the extraordinary efforts of farmers, food production businesses and supermarkets.
Several key themes emerged throughout the discussion which centred on the lessons that can be learnt from the COVID-19 crisis, how it has enabled a more serious examination of the existential risks climate change poses to our national food system, as well as the changing role of the state in our lives.
THE NEED FOR A GREEN, JUST RENEWAL
We heard that the society that emerges from the COVID-19 crisis will be fundamentally changed, with sectors such as hospitality faring particularly badly. This, paired with the already urgent need to mitigate and adapt to a changing climate, which will make the food supply chain more fragile, necessitates bold thinking on what is important for the food system. With the inevitable wave of insolvency and unemployment likely to fuel inequality and anger, there is an urgent need to create jobs and consider how to ensure fairness in the way that the burdens are shared.
FROM EFFICIENCY TO RESILIENCE
The crisis has exposed the dangers of pursuing efficiency at the expense of resilience, including the risks associated with consolidation, and the need to diversify the supply chain. This is most evident in the US where the meat industry’s dependence on a few large processing plants has resulted in unsafe working conditions, meat shortages and the spectre of mass culling.
Left unaddressed, there is a risk that the coming recession and need for cash preservation and efficiency, will lead to greater concentration, further undermining the resilience of the system to respond to future shocks. This will likely be an area that receives greater scrutiny and possible state intervention.
RENEWED FOCUS ON FOOD SECURITY
Food security has also risen up the agenda and COVID-19 has informed a better appreciation of the existential risks that climate change poses to our national food supply. This has increased scrutiny over our critical infrastructure needs, whether we need to shift from ‘just in time’, to ‘just in case’ supply chains and build surplus into the system. While we need to rethink what needs to be produced here in the UK, it remains clear that government and businesses should avoid knee-jerk responses that look only to localism, which may not necessarily be the most sustainable or resilient option.
THE HEALTH OF THE NATION
The crisis is also a stark reminder of the dangers of obesity which is associated with heightened risk of complications from COVID-19 and increased mortality rates. This will sharpen attitudes on the need to tackle poor diets. With the resonance of ‘saving the NHS’ this will likely be politically expedient. The link between population health and economic health and productivity, as one business leader noted, should also focus minds on the need to build human resilience.
Though the causal links between obesity and COVID-19 are yet to be determined, we know that part of the solution lies in nutritious diets with more natural food, more fruit and veg and more cooking from scratch. While the government can lead the way by providing healthy food in hospitals, schools and public settings, leadership is needed from the business community.
Businesses need to think how they are contributing to the solution, not the problem and how they can help consumers make better choices. We know that restaurants, caterers and food businesses heavily influence consumer diets. We also discussed the importance of integrity and ethical standards; businesses that overstate or exaggerate the health claims of their products, muddy the waters for everyone – without better practices, more regulation could follow.
FOOD AND ENVIRONMENTAL STANDARDS UNDER THREAT
We also heard that the ambitious environmental objectives and high food standards as set out in the proposed Environment and Agriculture bills risk dilution in the face of intense economic pressures and competing political priorities. The review’s engagement and research with citizens has highlighted the demand for high food standards. However, if current negotiations with the US do not fully protect our food safety, environmental and animal welfare standards, there will be considerable public concern. We heard loud and clear of the need for businesses to put pressure publicly on the government to make the right decisions on food and welfare standards. Businesses should also communicate their concerns to their customers.
The discussion painted a picture of challenges, but also opportunities to build stronger businesses by creating resilience and championing a responsible role in society. At Sancroft, we are on hand to help you navigate this agenda, whether that is:
- Engaging with the immediate issues, such as the threat of weakening food standards – and what to do about it;
- Setting your ambitions for what role your business wants to take in this future and how to get there;
- Reviewing and improving the resilience and responsibility of your supply chain;
- Sharpening your approach to understanding and effectively communicating on health, food safety, and environmental standards.