Video: Richard King and Dr Helen Harwatt explain how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted on the UK’s interactions with the global food system.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to test the resilience of human systems around the world, requiring them to respond to unprecedented circumstances. Despite its novelty, the current pandemic may augur further global turbulence and systemic shocks in the years ahead.
This paper collates the findings of a rapid risk assessment of the pandemic’s impact on the UK’s interactions with the global food system, conducted – iteratively, from mid-2020 to mid-2021 – to inform measures to build food-system resilience in the face of ongoing pandemic-related instabilities. Evidence from this period shows that:
- The UK food system was already in a state of readjustment prior to the pandemic, due to Brexit; moreover, the ramifications of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU are ongoing.
- UK imports of food, drink, animal feed and agrochemical inputs have remained largely stable throughout the pandemic, although airfreighted fruit and vegetable imports contracted in March–May 2020, during the first national lockdown. In early 2021, food trade with Europe was acutely disrupted by the ending of the Brexit transition period.
- UK food prices rose during the first national lockdown but fell for much of the rest of 2020. In 2021, however, they have risen steadily, reflecting trends in global food prices, which have been increasing consistently since May 2020 despite generally plentiful food supplies.
- Globally, while some regions have been affected by supply-chain constraints, and some markets by significant price rises, impacts have mostly resulted from recalibrations in demand. Nor have food- and agriculture-related trade measures implemented by individual countries been as severe or harmful as those adopted during the global food price crises of 2007–08 and 2010–12.
- Economic pressures resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic could yet cause major crises around the world, if people are unable to afford nutritious food. While supply impacts to date have been relatively mild, there is little evidence that this is due to widespread effective or coordinated interventions. Millions more people are now suffering from nutrition insecurity than at the onset of the pandemic.
- The global impacts of the pandemic are likely to affect the UK’s food system for some years. With significant global vaccination inequalities, and with global food prices at their highest levels in a decade, the full extent of the impacts may not yet have been realized. Such pressures, coupled with continued Brexit-related impacts on the food system and uncertainties about the pace and shape of the UK’s post-pandemic economic recovery, could yet cause shocks initially realized elsewhere to compromise UK supplies.
- As the UK deliberates on a National Food Strategy for England and begins to implement new agricultural initiatives and trade deals under a raft of post-Brexit legislation, it should champion national and global environmental standards to improve the long-term sustainability and resilience of the food system.
- On the multilateral stage, the UK has had significant leadership potential in 2021, including in its presidency of the G7 and as host of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). As it seeks to assert its post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ narrative, the UK must position itself both internationally and domestically in the vanguard of supporting and enabling post-COVID food systems that forestall short-term food insecurity concerns and that promote long-term nutritional, livelihood, and environmental security.