Staff at Harper Adams University (HAU) have come together to discuss the potential long-term implications of the Covid-19 pandemic on the UK’s food system and supply chain.

The team at the University analysed aspects of the food industry ranging from shifts in consumer preferences as a result of the pandemic to the fragility of long-distance supply chains.

UK food supply

In its findings, the University said: “One of the key public policy challenges of the post-pandemic period will be to better balance food security and environmental management concerns.

“The impending departure of Britain from the EU is a mixed blessing in the context of post-pandemic planning for the food system. In many ways Brexit complicates the post-pandemic agriculture and food supply challenges. The pandemic has highlighted the benefits when countries cooperate. It has also revealed the limits of such cooperation, even where there are long standing relationships as within the EU. In an unexpected way, Brexit may facilitate the UK adaptation post-pandemic because it gives Britain greater flexibility in deciding on the path forward.”

Consumer preferences

“Most British consumers are unlikely to willingly pay more for food because it is produced in the UK, even if that supply is more reliable. However, the pandemic may have changed some habits. Some consumers have tried online ordering and home delivery for the first time, and they may continue because they like the convenience. This is particularly true of older consumers who were not ordering food online before the pandemic.

“Vegetable and meat box companies report being overwhelmed with orders after the March 23rd lockdown. This is their opportunity to convince new customers that the convenience and quality are value for money.

“While it would be possible to create a wholesome, nutritious diet entirely from foods grown in the UK, British consumers will probably maintain their taste for citrus fruits, bananas, pineapple, tomatoes, peppers and other food products from warmer climates and continue demanding out of season produce, but companies may diversify their supplies; instead of relying on products from one country, they may decide to source from several.”

Long distance supply chains

“Company changes due to the pandemic may be greater than those likely to be seen among British consumers. If a company experienced major losses due to supply chain disruptions, resilience may be a higher priority in planning. The cost and probability of a disruption may be added into the estimates of expected profits when deciding on a strategy.

“A strategy to increase resilience is processing, logistics and marketing flexibility. Specialised supply chains too focused on a single type of buyer reduce costs, but they are also vulnerable to disruption if those buyers dramatically change their orders. This is what led to the milk dumping and plowing under vegetables when processors focused on products for restaurants and institutions could not quickly switch to serving the individual consumer market via supermarkets and home delivery during the lockdown. Will food supply companies post Covid-19 build in the flexibility to serve alternative marketing channels?

“To reduce costs most UK food companies have developed a so-called lean supply chain with just-in-time deliveries. For less perishable foods one of the options is holding greater inventories. But who would hold those inventories? The narrow margins in the food sector make it unlikely that the supermarket chains would hold those inventories without some tax or other public policy incentive.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the UK food system, but in the longer run it could also create opportunities for those ready to adapt to the changing realities.”

“The contradictory trends in UK supermarkets are likely to be exacerbated post-COVID-19, including range rationalisation which reduces the variety of products stocked to cut costs and premiumisation in which supermarket handle more premium products for consumption at home as consumers attempt to compensate for not going out to eat. Those trends can occur simultaneously as discount supermarkets include some premium products among their inventory.”

The team at the University concluded by saying that the pandemic has shown again that in times of great uncertainty, data, analysis and expertise count in making decisions: “Now is the time to begin counting the cost of food supply disruptions and collecting data on how consumer preferences have changed.

“It is the time for researchers, agri-business and farmers to work together to understand how food supply chains can be shorter and more resilient. What technologies are needed to cost-effectively produce the foods that UK consumers want? What food products could be produced closer to home? For which products does holding great inventories make sense? For which products does diversification of sources hold the greatest promise? How can public policy balance the needs of food security and the environment?

“The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the UK food system, but in the longer run it could also create opportunities for those ready to adapt to the changing realities.”