The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the vulnerabilities of our food supply chain
With both hunger and food waste simultaneously soaring during the pandemic, we need to ask serious questions about our domestic food supply
During lockdown there was some cautious optimism that, as pollution levels plummeted and oil prices nosedived, one silver lining could be a faster route to ‘net-zero’. Planes were grounded, and those who needed to travel for work experimented with walking, running or cycling. Commuter cyclists, like me, will remember fondly our trips on quieter, less polluted roads. However, recent data has shown air pollution levels rebound in our cities.
This is just one issue that must be urgently addressed as we create policies for a post-pandemic world. Poor air quality was already the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK. That is why my committee, the EFRA Committee, is urgently reviewing the Government’s 2019 Air Quality Strategy as part of our new Air Quality inquiry. The pandemic has laid health inequalities bare; and air pollution is something that we know disproportionately affects disadvantaged communities. It seems obvious that, given this chance to reshape our policies, we need to find ways to tackle this avoidable health crisis in a way that will benefit both people and the planet.
Covid-19 has also highlighted the importance of resilience in our food supply chain. Most of us had not seen supermarkets emptied of food products in our lifetimes. Too many only now recognise the value of key workers in this sector, not only in the supermarkets but with labour in the supply chain – from fruit pickers to delivery drivers. The policies that navigate the UK out of the pandemic cannot overlook longer-term questions about domestic food supply and our control over it. How much can we rely on supply chains from abroad, including food safety? Do we need greater self-sufficiency? Is it right to import more food (and the resources that go into producing food) when we have a temperate climate and high standards of production here?
We cannot overlook longer-term questions about domestic food supply and our control over it
The spotlight on the food supply has also highlighted other cracks in our food system, like food waste and food insecurity. Recent estimates tell us that every year, 1.6 million tonnes of food are harvested but never eaten – often because they are not judged to be good-looking enough for consumption. The estimated carbon footprint of this is immense, while the cost to the economy nears £1bn. During lockdown, the food waste generated by UK restaurants increased from a weekly average of £111 per restaurant to £148, due to unpredictable consumer ordering patterns. Meanwhile, as the EFRA Committee heard in one recent evidence session, hunger during the pandemic has soared. There is clearly something wrong here, and schemes such the Food Waste Fund which focus on closing this gap via food redistribution should be supported.
In the UK, we have world-leading standards from farm to fork. And as a former farmer myself, I know farmers want to produce high quality food for consumers but need support (not bureaucracy) in doing so. Even before Covid-19, we were redesigning our domestic agricultural support systems outside the EU. The new Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS), which will replace the Common Agricultural Policy, must deliver higher environmental outcomes while still supporting food production in the UK. Getting this right can help produce a green, sustainable and productive future for agriculture in this country. The devil will be in the detail and my Committee will continue to scrutinise this as the policies are fleshed out in the autumn.
Like all of us, I am keen to quickly return to some form of ‘normal’. But I am also hopeful we can use the change this pandemic has inflicted as an opportunity to build a more sensible, practical, cleaner and greener future. The EFRA Committee will be at the forefront of that conversation.
Neil Parish is Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton and chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee