Leading food policy experts from a UK university are warning Britain’s supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables, which predominantly come from Spain and Italy, could be severely disrupted by the coronavirus crisis. They also explain how supermarkets’ move to “just-in-time” supply chains has severely dented their resilience to cope during this unprecedented time. The UK Government needs to enact rationing immediately to prevent food shortages exacerbating the crisis, they warn.
Panic buying and stockpiling has been disrupting the food supply in the UK in recent days as shoppers prepare to go into lockdown mode just like many other countries around the world.
Despite the pledge that the coronavirus crisis poses little threat to the integrity of the food supply and a package of measures from UK retailers to ensure and even boost supply, panic-buying has been particularly rife in the UK causing massive disruption. Empty shelves in supermarkets have become a disappointing but common sight.
“Rationing will prevent people from buying more than they need, at least of those foods included in the rationing scheme. It would ensure that what foods are available are equitably distributed, in proportion to need not to affluence or poverty,” Professor Erik Millstone, of the University of Sussex Business School, tells.
“A rationing scheme should start with fresh produce, because those are the foods that are most dependent on ‘just-in-time deliveries’ and, therefore, where the supplies are potentially most vulnerable. If necessary it could be extended to other types of foods. Even during the Second World War in the UK, not all foods were rationed,” he explains.
Professor Millstone and his colleagues Professors Tim Lang, of the University of London, and Terry Marsden, of Cardiff University, have written to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson criticizing his government’s response to stockpiling as “weak and unconvincing.”
The trio warn that most of the UK's fresh fruit, vegetables and salads come from the two European countries with high cases of COVID-19, Spain and Italy, whose supplies could diminish rapidly if there are insufficient numbers available to pick, pack and transport them or if their national governments insist that produce should be kept for their domestic consumers.
“None of us have data or statistics on the future, but given that the epidemic is most severe in Italy and Spain, it is inevitable that if it increasingly affects people who produce harvest, prepare and distribute food in those countries, then the countries that rely on importing food from those countries will have to cope with diminishing supplies,” he continues.
Professor Millstone also warns that UK residents are set to buy even more food at supermarkets now that pubs, cafes and restaurants have all closed and highlights the important nutritional role of fresh fruit and vegetables at this time.
“Consequently, far more meals are being eaten in people’s homes, which requires more shopping. Another is a concern about getting food if they, or a member of their household, falls ill. No doubt, the sight of other people stocking up increases concerns that there will be nothing left for them. Until the UK Government announces measures for ensuring that everyone will have enough to eat, people will try to protect themselves and those close to them,” he continues.
Asked what food rationing might look like, Professor Millstone explains, “The way that rationing can work depends on whether or not supplies are sufficient in aggregate. If foods are scarce, rationing also requires controls on prices, to avoid poor people going hungry. If supplies are adequate in aggregate, and if the distribution system is functioning well, then a voucher scheme would ensure equitable distribution and access at affordable prices.”
Ensuring food supply
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) stresses that the British government and industry continue to work closely together to ensure people have the food and supplies they need.
Moreover, UK retailers have already confirmed that in recent days, sales of some foods have increased significantly and manufacturers have produced around 50 percent more food than they usually would. The retailers highlighted that the main challenge they are facing is keeping shelves stocked in the face of increased purchasing behaviors.
The government has temporarily relaxed competition laws so retailers can work together to keep shops open and stocked. This involves sharing data on stock levels, pooling staff to meet demand, or sharing distribution depots and delivery vans.
Earlier this month, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) emphasized that supermarkets were working round the clock to help customers get the products they need by trying to keep shops well-stocked and deliveries running as smoothly as possible. Many supermarkets have also increased opening hours, particularly so the elderly and key workers can get the food they need.
“Some of the rules the government has relaxed relate to the times at which stores can receive deliveries, and that is entirely sensible. If relaxing competition rules mean that food is more equitably distributed then that may be entirely desirable. But just leaving it to the large retail chains risks depriving smaller independent grocery shops and their customers of their supplies,” adds Professor Millstone.
“The retailers are very uncomfortable with the predicament in which they find themselves. The government is content for the retailers to restrict how much people can buy, but the retailers want the government to take responsibility for deciding what restrictions if any should apply. Some senior food industry executives want the government to introduce some form of food rationing, even though they are not yet ready to say that in public.”
In their joint warning to Johnson, the food policy experts, recommend the government take immediate action to:
Initiate a health-based food rationing scheme to see the country through this crisis. This should start from Public Health England’s Eatwell Plate and draw on expertise from the devolved administrations, and relevant disciplines.
Rapidly review options for ensuring people on low incomes have sufficient money to buy a decent diet. Cash injections for people in receipt of welfare benefit is needed and potentially a national voucher scheme redeemable for nutritionally sound purchases such as fruit and vegetables.
Ensure that nutritionally appropriate food can and will be delivered to all those who self-isolate or are quarantined.
Initiate a new Food Rationing Scheme which is open, equitable and based on health needs, taking account of age, income and vulnerability, to be applied UK-wide.
Amend the Agriculture Bill, currently before Parliament, to include a new clause to ensure that the people of the UK will be fed well, healthily, equitably and sustainably.