Coronavirus: The Importance of food security

The Coronavirus pandemic has shaken the globe. This once in a lifetime disaster has claimed over 100,000 lives globally and continues to do so. Most international crises do not directly lead to job losses, death, economic insecurity or food insecurity. However, this pandemic has trigged all three.

Food security, or insecurity is largely a problem of the developing world. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) defines food security as “existing when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (FAO, 2020).

To put this into context in the developed world, people do not have to grow their own food for survival, or additional sustenance, however, in the developing world this is more common. Smallholders are dependent on their land, and in many cases are not fortunate to have access to supermarkets as those in the developed world do. This month bare shelves brought the long neglected issue of food insecurity to the unaware rich world.

Panic Buying

As grocery items on shelves disappeared, panic further increased. Shelves in supermarkets that were stripped bare of hand sanitiser and handwash the previous week were soon stripped, of toilet rolls, fresh fruit and veg, tinned food, cereals, crisps, meat, fresh and frozen. Supermarkets imposed limits (arguably way too late). Shelves that were restocked by night workers in supermarkets, were quickly stripped bare by shoppers who rushed in when the stores opened.

What all this demonstrated, is that the supply of food, particularly in the end stage, delivery to customer is especially fragile. Whether through online delivery, or in store. The supermarkets have assured the general public that enough food is available which may be true but the delivery of it to consumers is the weak link. It is possible to see supply disrupted by a number of sick delivery drivers causing issues for supermarkets in a region of the country.

Supply of food in the developed world in normal times is rarely a pressing issue. As Tim Laing professor of food policy at London’s City University puts it “panic buying aside, our supermarket shelves are usually full. We have access to a greater range of ingredients at better prices than at any time in human history” (Laing, 2020).

As a researcher on this topic its interesting to see an actual focus on short and long term issues of food security globally.

Laing in his book warns that the UK is food system is “stretched, open to disruption and far from resilient” (Laing, 2020).

Laing goes further to state the bitter reality that faces us ‘we have a massively fragile just-in-time supply chain which could easily collapse; a depleted agriculture sector which produces only around 50% of the food we actually eat, leaving us at the mercies of the international markets; and production methods which are damaging to the environment and human health’ (Laing, 2020).

With UK overeliance on international markets and an inability to grow enough food (due to lack of usable land) for its citizens, which is not solely a UK issue. We have to turn to researching into other means of production and look into altering the means of consumption incrementally.

The food system is fragile, complex and not able to react to the demands of panic buying without interventionist policies, food is very much a finite resource and the production of it even more so. A good thing was at the time of this crisis there were no high rates of food loss present in the UK. This would have put untold strain on the food supply system. The panic buying has now ceased, largely because people have stocks of food to last over two weeks and also because of the restrictions in place at the major supermarkets.

One thing the pandemic is demonstrating is that policymakers must be proactive with regards to the food system, it is not enough for policymakers to take a laissez-faire approach.

More updates on the topic of food security, particularly in this context will be posted here.

References:

Rayner, J. (2020) ‘Diet, health, inequality: why Britain’s food supply system doesn’t work’, The Observer, 22nd March [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/22/tim-lang-interview-professor-of-food-policy-city-university-supply-chain-crisis (Accessed 13 April 2020).

Wood, Z. (2020) ‘Supermarkets ready for a new week of rising to the virus’s challenge’, The Guardian, 29th March [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/mar/29/supermarkets-ready-new-week-virus-challenge (Accessed 13 April 2020).

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