Brexit’s benefits? How food security prep set up UK for pandemic.
Why We Wrote This
The British government spent a great deal trying to protect itself from food shortages in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Then the coronavirus pandemic brought about its own food crisis. How did the U.K. fare?
Local residents pick asparagus as they work at Dyas Farms, in Sevenscore, England, on April 16, 2020. Foreign workers, the backbone of Britain’s agriculture force, are missing from the country’s fields due to the coronavirus lockdown.
May 28, 2020
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When planning for Brexit, the British government spent several billion pounds making preparations in case the country pulled out of the European Union without an agreement. That included a concerted look at food security, for good reason: Britain imports fully half of its food.
This extensive pre-Brexit planning has proved a boon in the last few months, as it has softened the disruptive blow of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet as the United Kingdom begins reopening after two months under lockdown, analysts say the coronavirus has still exposed an unacceptably high vulnerability of food dependency that must now be dealt with.
One challenge has been reshaping the “just-in-time” delivery system that the U.K. has relied upon for decades to bring fresh produce as cost effectively as possible to store shelves. But such a system typically keeps very little produce in stock to cope with emergencies like the current crisis. Food services may switch to a “just-in-case” approach, says David Bailey, a professor at the University of Birmingham, “so instead of having a super-lean supply chain that stretches across the world, you actually have much bigger stocks and supply-chain sourcing locally.”
In the chaotic lead up to Britain’s departure from the European Union, grim forecasts emerged of the dangers of a no-deal Brexit. They warned of disruption of fragile food and medicine supply chains, and panic buying and fuel shortages that would spark “a rise in public disorder and community tensions.”
The British government, in fact, spent several billion pounds making preparations in case the country pulled out of the EU without an agreement. The contingency planning, called Operation Yellowhammer, included a concerted look at food security, for good reason: Britain imports fully half of its food, much of that from the EU.
This extensive pre-Brexit planning has proved a boon in the last few months, as it has softened the disruptive blow of the coronavirus pandemic. Britain has been relatively ready to cope with a COVID-19 surge in demand for food thanks to a degree of warehouse and stockpile expansion from early 2019.
Yet as the United Kingdom begins reopening after two months under lockdown, analysts say the coronavirus has still exposed an unacceptably high vulnerability of food dependency that must now be dealt with. It is a holdover from the British Empire in the mid-19th century, when the country relied on food sourced from colonies abroad to provide nourishment at home.
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Questions are also being raised about how crisis-mode government decisions further empowered large supermarket chains, while decimating the restaurants and hotels of the food-service sector, which accounted for 30% of U.K. food consumption before the lockdown. And the pandemic has raised alarm about overreliance on seasonal foreign workers, most from the EU. This even prompted Prince Charles to take the unusual step of calling on Britons furloughed from other sectors of the economy to help to bring in crops before they rot.
“Britain was probably in the best-stocked position that it had been for many, many years, because of preparations for Brexit,” says David Bailey, a professor of industrial strategy at the University of Birmingham. “So, when COVID-19 hit, leading to lots of economic dislocation and people starting to stockpile at home, the supermarkets’ distribution system was in a position to meet that, though not necessarily in the right place at the right time.”
“The negative side,” adds Professor Bailey, “is that when it comes to food in particular – agriculture, picking crops, and food processing – the U.K. is very dependent on an army of overseas, low-paid workers … and that’s been made worse by [pandemic] travel restrictions.”
An employee of Eurotunnel and his dog check trucks on their way to Britain during a day of test in case of no-deal Brexit, at the exit of the Channel tunnel in Calais, northern France.
As Britons begin to emerge from the worst of the virus, with the second highest death toll (37,000) in the world after the U.S., the push to bring critical supplies closer to home will accelerate, and extend beyond food.
“There will be questions about how far we have gone in terms of integration globally and whether we need to bring a balance back, at least in what we deem to be strategically important areas – agriculture, parts of manufacturing, sourcing for our health system, pharmaceuticals – for more local content to guard against this sort of disruption,” says Professor Bailey.
Another result will be close examination of why the food-service sector was almost completely shut down during the lockdown, rather than being kept running to help food banks and other outlets. Food producers have been challenged with huge surpluses from unused local produce, such as 95,000 tons of potatoes expected to pile up by July, which had been destined for fish and chip shops.
And Britain’s nine largest supermarket chains have been relied upon to carry the burden, while the rest of the food-service sector was “devastated” by lockdown measures, says Tim Lang, a professor of food policy at City, University of London, and author of a new book “Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them.”
“The astonishing thing, going into coronavirus, is Britain ought to have been the best-prepared rich country on the planet to deal with food and a no-deal Brexit. It wasn’t,” says Professor Lang, who has advised a host of United Nations bodies and U.K. government agencies on food issues. He cites preparatory reviews for a pandemic in 2011, then full-scale Brexit planning in 2016 and 2019.
Despite the long-standing concerns, little has been done to make the U.K. less food dependent, says Professor Lang. “The U.S. feeds itself. France feeds itself. Britain doesn’t, and has chosen not to.”
“Why does that happen? It’s because Britain had an empire and it made a decision in the 1840s not to feed itself,” says Professor Lang. Ever since, despite food shortage shocks during both world wars, “the hardwired position still in Britain … is we expect others to feed us.”
Customers shop at Hunters Farm shop in Milton Keynes, England, as the spread of the COVID-19 continues on March 18, 2020.
One challenge has been reshaping the “just-in-time” delivery system that the U.K. has relied upon for decades to bring fresh produce as cost effectively as possible to store shelves. When the mammoth British supermarket chain Tesco adopted the system, it shot up from being the third-biggest retailer in the U.K. to the third largest in the world – and now accounts for more than 20% of retail food purchases in Britain. But such a system typically keeps very little produce in stock to cope with emergencies like the current crisis.
Tesco has been a key player in “feed the nation” contingency plans since early March. During the lockdown, it donated food to provide millions of meals for health service workers, and supported 350,000 people from a government-provided list of those “clinically vulnerable.”
Presciently, Tesco in 2016 also conducted a “doomsday” exercise, in which it envisioned coping with a headquarters shutdown. It was therefore ready for remote working, but not the sudden surge in demand for food akin to its traditional heaviest shopping day of the year, Dec. 23.
“With no notice we had five days at that level and no chance to plan,” Dave Lewis, Tesco’s chief executive officer, told The Guardian earlier this month. “That pace in demand is unbelievable. The whole industry emptied the front end of the supply chain and then we had to recover.”
The lessons now being learned are likely to have far-reaching effects. Birmingham’s Professor Bailey says Brexit provided a useful stress test for the supply chain, but both Brexit and the pandemic will galvanize a trend toward reducing risk. Critical needs like food and health services may switch from just-in-time delivery systems to “just-in-case,” so “instead of having a super-lean supply chain that stretches across the world, you actually have much bigger stocks and supply-chain sourcing locally,” says Professor Bailey.
In the U.K., that may require a broader change of thinking.
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“There are really important issues that Britain has got to face; [it’s] got to wake up and discuss its food security problem,” says Professor Lang. “Food banks can’t cope, and the government’s response is, yet again, let nine retailers give more donations to food banks. … There is a terrifyingly worrying arrogance being shown in the British government that it can just leave it to Tesco, et al.”
Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.