Will local food producers keep feeding us beyond Covid-19?

By Anna Krzywoszynska, University of Sheffield, UK

The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly affected the UK’s food system. During the first weeks of the pandemic and the resulting lockdown, shelves emptied as demand skyrocketed. Since then, ongoing physical distancing measures have led to a shift towards online grocery shopping. While the supermarkets are now ramping up their delivery capacity, this demand is still not being met. 

In the UK, food provisioning is highly centralised, with just five supermarket brands dominating the market. Supermarkets also use just-in-time supply chains, and minimise warehousing, which means that sudden changes in the food system, such as the imposition of lockdown and physical distancing, can have significant effects. 

Further disruptions are also likely because of longer-term effects of the pandemic and there are questions to be asked about how growers and other actors in the food chains will cope with labour shortages and new health and safety measures. The UK also depends on well-functioning global supply chains for its food security; these may become disrupted as some nation states have already started to stockpile food they would normally be exporting, and as harvests may be affected by efforts to contain the pandemic.

The shock of the pandemic illustrates the overall vulnerability of the UK’s food system and it is important to find ways to bolster the resilience of UK’s food security now, as the pandemic develops, as well as to draw lessons for the future.

Local food systems: Improving functional diversity

A key element of resilience is functional diversity – the more pathways there are to meet the same goal, the more resilient a system is. In the case of the UK’s food security, it is local food producers and direct sales organisations that provide this functional diversity. We can see this functional diversity working in practice. The local food sector is stepping up to meet the shortfall in food supply, especially with regards to direct deliveries. Direct sales of vegetable boxes from local growers or community supported agriculture schemes have more than doubled, and local food producers or high-quality goods such as speciality cheeses and meats have pivoted from supplying restaurants to online sales. Interestingly, the pandemic has also affected consumers’ perceptions, with people reporting a greater appreciation for food and reduced food wasting, potentially opening up a space for a renewed debate about how food should be valued in our society.

We have just been awarded funding by the Economic and Social Research Council (UK) to work with local community food groups and other local food actors to aid this response. We will work with a range of project partners within this sector across the country, including producer associations, short supply chain coordinators, and third-sector organisations, to capture the local food sector’s contribution to UK’s food security at this time, and to identify where help is needed to maximise its impact and to secure the livelihoods of local food suppliers. The team will also work with these partners to draw out lessons on how this contribution can be maintained to make UK’s food systems more robust, especially in light of the expected Brexit-related food system disruptions

We know that our food systems are not sustainable; the Covid-19 pandemic is a direct result of this unsustainability and has also revealed key issues. We have a chance to use this moment to change food systems for the better. We know that re-localising food is key for food security and for environmental sustainability and that geographers have a key role to play in this. Our project will allow us to better understand how we can strengthen the local food sector in the UK to ensure a better food future which is more equitable, more sustainable, and more resilient. 

About the author: Dr Anna Krzywoszynska is Research Fellow at the Department of Geography and Associate Director at the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield. She has just been awarded ESRC funding for a major research project entitled “The local as a site of food security resilience in the times of pandemic: opportunities, challenges and ways forward”, working alongside Professor Damian Maye of the Countryside and Community Research Institute at the University of Gloucestershire. This post is an adapted version of a press release from the university of Sheffield; the original can be viewed here

Suggested further readings

Donaldson, A, Brice, J, Midgley, J. (2019). Navigating futures: Anticipation and food supply chain mapping. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Moragues‐Faus, A. (2020). Towards a critical governance framework: Unveiling the political and justice dimensions of urban food partnerships. The Geographical Journal

Aase, T.H., Chaudhary, R.P. and Vetaas, O.R. (2010). Farming flexibility and food security under climatic uncertainty: Manang, Nepal Himalaya. Area,  doi:10.1111/j.1475-4762.2009.00911.x

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