The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted weaknesses in the UK's food supply chain © Getty Images
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted weaknesses in the UK's food supply chain © Getty Images

Covid-19 could move UK towards food self-sufficiency

The coronavirus pandemic and Brexit could provide a stimulus for the UK to move towards self-sufficiency in food, one of the country’s largest procurement businesses has said.

Alex Demetriou, managing director of Regency Purchasing, said the UK has the ability to become a more self-sufficient nation by changing eating habits.

He said while the UK was currently between 50% and 60% self-sufficient in terms of food production, the population could choose to eat more vegetable-based foods, such as vegan or “flexitarian” diets, to allow agricultural land to produce food for more people.

Demetriou believed that scenes such as the stripping bare of supermarket shelves by stockpilers during the coronavirus outbreak should give pause for thought over how supply chains can keep up with surges in demand.

When the UK moves beyond the current transition period of Brexit, which is due to cease at the end of this year, and new trade restrictions and taxes are enforced, supply chains could see even further stresses, he said.

“The movement of food has been disrupted like never before, with international travel limited and social distancing restrictions, making operating to meet the demand more challenging,” he said.

“These challenges could, however, create an opportunity for the UK to become a more self-sufficient food-producing nation.”

When it comes to certain items such as beef and cheese, the UK produces 80% of what it requires. However, it imports large amounts of produce such as tomatoes and lemons from countries including Spain and South America.

He added what the government decides to do with British fisheries post-Brexit could play a vital role in any move to be more self-sufficient. 

“Taking back control of the UK’s fishing zone could help. The UK still imports twice as much fish as it exports, with the top five species consumed being cod, tuna, prawns, salmon and haddock.

“Yet, the UK exports higher value seafood including crab, scallops and langoustine to France, Italy and Spain, who eat these items more regularly than we currently do in the UK.”

Meanwhile, the Tenant Farmers Association (TFA) has called on the UK government to delay the new Agricultural Bill until 2022 to allow for food security and the operation of supply chains to be given equal prominence as environmental priorities.

The TFA said Covid-19 had highlighted how fragile food security is in the UK, adding supply chains had been “insufficiently flexible to allow raw ingredients previously destined for food service to be re-channelled into retail”.

“Consumers were facing empty shelves on meat, dairy and egg counters and were also limited in the amount that they could purchase across those and other product lines. At the same time, many dairy farmers saw cliff-edge reductions in their milk prices and some were forced to tip away milk from their bulk tanks.”

The TFA added, while it does not underestimate the logistical issues involved in switching products from one supply chain to another, “more could have been done”. 

Retailers should have done more through their buying patterns to procure product from dormant foodservice supply chains, it added.

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