The expertise of academics from the N8 AgriFood programme has helped the UK Government as it considers next steps for the food system amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Thursday 30 April 2020, Professor Bob Doherty, Professor of Marketing and N8 AgriFood Chair at the University of York, and Professor Fiona Smith, Professor of International Economic Law and N8 Chair in AgriFood Regulation at the University of Leeds, gave oral testimony to the House of Commons International Trade Committee.
The committee system in Parliament provides a crucial role overseeing and scrutinising the work of Government ministers and their departments, which in this case is the Department for International Trade.
Prof. Doherty and Prof. Smith covered numerous areas in their testimony, including the key characteristics of the UK food system, the impacts of COVID-19 on the system and export restrictions in place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
They also covered the idea of addressing the UK’s food security through increasing self-sufficiency in domestic food production, as well as recommendations for the recovery period and the long term impacts of COVID-19 on our food system.
Here we provide an overview of what they discussed.
Characteristics of the UK agrifood sector
Prof. Doherty explained the UK agrifood sector is the largest UK manufacturing sector worth £113.2 billion to the UK economy. It employs 3.95m people and is also highly integrated internationally.
The UK imports almost half (47%) of its food. The EU provides 30% of our food with much of the remainder coming from the developing world.
Surprisingly, only a small amount of our food (less than 4%) comes from North America. In cases such as fresh fruit, the UK is heavily reliant on EU countries such as Spain for vegetables and salads. Italy provides ambient goods such as tinned tomatoes and pasta.
60% of UK food exports also go to the EU. There are good reasons for this international integration including geographical, temporal and economic factors as to why certain produce is sourced from different origins.
Prof. Doherty also highlighted the growing importance of the out of home sector in the UK, which includes food service and catering, and has grown in recent years to an annual value of £30 billion.
In addition, Prof. Doherty highlighted how our supply chains have become highly just-in-time, meaning supermarkets can place orders with their vegetable suppliers in Southern Spain one day and the shipment will arrive in the UK supermarket depot the very next day.
This is possible due to the free movement of goods across borders in the EU single market and the speed of the roll-on-roll-off freight facilities between Calais and Dover.
Just-in-time supply chains, panic buying and stockpiling
Both Prof. Doherty and Prof. Smith recognised that just-in-time supply chains have impacted the availability of food in supermarkets.
Prof. Doherty further explained that when these just-in-time supply chains were coupled with the consumer behaviour of panic buying and stockpiling, it resulted in less food being available for food banks and vulnerable groups.
He went on to explain that the COVID-19 pandemic has therefore exposed a number of existing vulnerabilities in the UK food system, whilst recognising that overall the system responded relatively well after the initial challenges of panic buying and stockpiling.
In bringing his comments to life with examples, Prof. Doherty explained the positive impact of relaxing competition regulations, which has resulted in supermarkets being able to work in collaboration and speak with suppliers together.
He also mentioned that there are great examples of food resilience with farmers and fishers going directly to consumers given that restaurants and cafes don’t currently require their produce.
Prof. Smith explained that it is difficult for food to be diverted away from restaurants and cafes and into supermarket supply chains. In the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, food from restaurants and cafes became food waste.
She also highlighted that COVID-19 has impacts throughout the agrifood supply chain. Fewer key workers on farms and in processing, particularly slaughterhouses, also reduces food available for supermarkets as there are insufficient workers to transform raw materials, such as cereals and livestock, into processed foods to push into the supermarket supply chains. She also noted that smaller shops and markets seem more resilient with fewer empty shelves.
Prof. Smith went on to explain how some farmers in the UK are finding it difficult to source animal feed, as this is imported from countries affected by the virus.
The international perspective and the threat of trade protectionism
Prof. Smith recognised that supply routes have become challenging with borders and ports being closed.
She explained how the UK has been working within the World Trade Organization (WTO) to encourage all WTO members to remove their export restrictions and that the WTO has produced a comprehensive and valuable report about the current exporting restrictions.
In addition, Prof. Smith highlighted that there are many regional trade agreements in place and these go across various countries with different details.
The WTO rules covering export restrictions are limited, but regional trade agreements can contain bans on export restrictions. This difference between the WTO rules and the regional trade agreements’ rules means the regulatory picture is very complicated.
When considering potential next steps, she suggested that the UK could look into new supply routes to tackle supply issues and information about trends in trade could be helpful when doing this.
In addressing the problems experienced with movement of goods and port closures, Prof. Doherty talked about the importance of collaboration across the G7 and G20 countries.
He also highlighted the significance of international trade given that there are products which the UK requires and we cannot grow here. He gave the insightful example of bananas, which are the nation’s most consumed fruit.
Developing a domestic food supply chain and the UK becoming self-sufficient
Prof. Smith explained that it would be challenging for a very locally focused food supply chain to stay resilient. Extreme weather events in the UK affect the water content for wheat, which is key for flour millers. In addition to this, climate change will severely affect which areas of land can be given over to farming.
In responding to a question on the self-sufficiency debate, Prof. Doherty outlined that there is a piece of work which needs to be done to explore the strategy of increasing UK production and considering the issue of sustainability. Any recovery must be environmentally sustainable and maintain our commitments in the UK Government’s 25-year Environment Plan.
He said options for increasing UK production could include extending the growing season or increasing the rate of indoor farming, but highlighted that there are foods we simply cannot grow in this country or it would be very hard to grow.
He further added that any strategy to increase UK production would need evidence behind it and require considerable investment in skills, training and infrastructure.
The bigger picture
Both Prof. Doherty and Prof. Smith highlighted that the issues of food supply and international trade in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic are complex and multi-faceted.
Prof. Doherty explained that when considering international trade, it is imperative that we look at how we support the livelihoods of farming communities in developing economies.
He also went on to mention that challenges in developing economies were due to restrictions on movement of goods and people, and that produce was not being harvested or shipped in certain geographical locations.
Similarly, Prof. Smith discussed moral responsibilities and the fact that there is a human right to food. She also discussed how workers across the food supply chain will have been ill with COVID-19.
In addition, she looked beyond the current pandemic and recognised that in the future we might see restrictions in the food supply chain related to climate change.
The long term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic
In considering the long term impacts, Prof. Smith explained that it will very much depend on whether countries will attempt to increase domestic production at the expense of global supply chains.
She pointed out that it is important to link domestic farm policy with international trade policy because WTO rules restrict the kinds of financial support that can be given to farmers.
Prof. Doherty outlined that the recovery needs to be sustainable and collaborative, as well as involve promoting good practice and increased sharing of information. He added that both data and protecting vulnerable people will be key, and it is also clear that any EU trade deal needs to maintain the frictionless movement of goods.
Find out more
If you missed Prof. Doherty and Prof. Smith giving evidence to the International Trade Committee, you can watch it here.
To learn more about the impact COVID-19 has had on the UK food system, you can read the article entitled ‘How Covid-19 has exposed inequalities in the UK food system: The case of UK food and poverty’, which Prof. Doherty has written with Madeleine Power, Katie Pybus and Kate Pickett for Emerald Open Research.