Ready or not

Categories: Reflections and opinions

Tim Lang, one of the country’s leading food policy experts, discusses the deep problems with our food supply exposed by the Covid-19 crisis

Interview: Ellie Costigan

Times of crisis have a tendency to make us reflect: on how we got to where we are, what we want to see when things get back to ‘normal’—whatever that might look like—and how we can safeguard against the worst of the fallout happening again.

For the food system, the fallout from Covid-19 has been significant. We’ve seen food waste and oversupply on the one hand and dire food shortages on the other. We’ve seen unprecedented challenges for producers, merchants and the food service industry, and a rise in household food insecurity. We’ve seen shortages of workers needed to pick and process food, while those people who’ve been involved in taking our food from the farms to our plates have taken considerable risks in doing so.

While the specifics of the Covid-19 pandemic couldn’t have been predicted, Professor Tim Lang at City University of London’s Centre for Food Policy has for many years been thinking—and, indeed, warning—about the many weaknesses of Britain’s food system, which are now being thrown into sharp relief. His latest book, Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them, was released just as the coronavirus began to take hold in the UK and, as it turned out, it couldn’t have been timelier. The book’s message centres on food security: what that means and what it should look like in a wealthy country such as the UK. “At its most stark, it’s about food flows,” says Tim—something this particular situation has got us thinking about more than ever.

Here, he tells us why the ramifications of coronavirus have been so keenly felt by the food sector, how we could have been better prepared, and what we can do to change the future food system for the better.

You’ve been openly critical of the food response to the coronavirus crisis. What could have been done?
My main concern was that there was no food plan, when there should have been. Of all affluent countries in the western world, Britain ought to be the best prepared on the food front for a crisis such as this: recently, there have been multiple occasions where it has looked like a no-deal Brexit was a serious possibility, and on those occasions, food and food supplies rocketed up the agenda, understandably and rightly. It made people more aware of the fact that Britain imports about half of its food. And yet we still weren’t prepared. The government put more attention into a US trade deal, with food standards as a bargaining chip. The lack of food planning is one of the biggest lessons to be learnt from this—so much damage has been caused by having to act fast, at the last minute, without any preparation for the consequences.

What do you mean by a food plan?
A food plan should cover the supply, distribution and consumption of food and its impact on health, environment and society, ensuring all people are well fed for the long-term. Part of this process should involve planning for emergencies and crises such as this. As I show in Feeding Britain, UK crisis preparation was shockingly complacent. I was also distressed, when the Covid-19 lockdown came, by how the government immediately closed down the food service sector instead of making proper use of its skills, capacity and facilities. In effect, government handed over the task of feeding the country to just nine major retailers, who already had 95 per cent of the retail market. No wonder there was such disruption.

What do you think should have been done at the start of the crisis?
That period was so badly handled. Consumers had got used to endless food, anytime. Now they were told: go home, feed yourselves. The food service sector could have been repurposed to provide community hubs, training and skills centres, places for emergency feeding and so on. That was not just a missed opportunity but—and I don’t say this lightly—an act of economic vandalism. A month or so later, some of those initiatives began to emerge through local authorities, civil society and networks of the willing, but this happened without central help. Government seemed to think all it needed to do was channel more food to food banks. However well-intentioned, that’s just a sticking plaster.

Think about it: roughly a third of food and drink in Britain was previously consumed outside the home, which meant all of those supply chains, all that diversity, went into meltdown. It’s why specialists and the types of artisanal producers at Borough Market have had such a hard time. A vast and delicate network of restaurants, cafes and independent retailer supply chains was suddenly torn apart, with precious little forethought. Some people are now saying what a success those nine major retailers made of maintaining food flows. On the surface, that’s true: food did flow. But I don’t call businesses dying, millions of people losing their jobs, and millions more scrabbling through food banks a success. All this without health controls over food supply or advice on eating in lockdown, as any decent crisis planning would have done.

Why does this matter?
Not having a plan didn’t just disrupt and probably irrevocably destroy a whole number of small businesses—we shall see, let’s hope that doesn’t happen—it left consumers completely uncertain about what to do. People immediately started to think: this is an emergency, where do I get my food? Then they were blamed for stockpiling. I actually think the public were incredibly low key in their response. There was talk about ransacking and so on, but there were no riots. There was no life loss that we know of. It was actually just a logistical problem caused by the lack of planning. The behaviour was anxious and extraordinary, but understandable.

Despite the fact that people were actually buying less food than they would have done had they been eating out, there was rolling disruption. That is because—and this is another illustration of the failure of planning—the food system was already running on ‘just in time’ logistics management. When you pay the bill, a product is repeat ordered. There is no storage. The storage is in lorries on the motorway. This is not resilient. Efficient in a narrow sense, maybe, but ripe for disruption. The government’s ‘plan’ (if it deserves that name) has simply been, as one insider told me, that “retailers will sort it”. I think that’s a mistake.

What can we do about these issues?
We should now be preparing for the long haul. And after much pressure, including from me and my colleagues, preparations for a new National Food Strategy are being resuscitated under Henry Dimbleby. This is important, as there are likely to be very long-lasting changes from this crisis. We need to be thinking about the sort of food system we want in the future. What does food security mean to a rich country such as this? What are the risks? Who’s in control? Can we defend our food system if things get really bad? Are we right to expect other countries to feed us? These are philosophical questions, but also very practical questions.

Can some good come out of the crisis?
Covid-19 is a warning. The UK needs a more secure, better defended, more democratic, more equitable food system—one that feeds everyone well and healthily. There are deep fault lines, but they can be bridged or addressed. They won’t self-heal and it won’t happen if left to just nine giant retailers. In my view, this concentration of food power is one of the central problems—it’s too much in too few hands.

Food isn’t just nutrients, it’s also biodiversity. It isn’t just health, it’s also jobs. It isn’t just culture, it’s also mental wellbeing. That complexity cannot be dealt with if we continue to prioritise cheapness. Cheap food means cheap labour. The shock of coronavirus should return us to seeing food—feeding people well and sustainably—as a critical national priority. Those with an alternative way of thinking and approach, like Borough Market, need to speak up now. People are seeing the value of community more than they did a few months ago. As we dare to look at recovery, we need to ask ourselves: what does a better food system look like? Is it just more of the same, or is it something better?

On 17th June at 1:30pm, as part of the Borough Talks programme, Tim will be among the panellists discussing how the new Agriculture Bill is set to transform British food production, for better or worse. Find out more.