The Covid-19 crisis has revealed widespread problems in the global supply chain, but it has also led to some inspiring solutions
The panic buying in supermarkets is over. But tedious queues and months of “unavailable” delivery slots are the new normal. Café closures mean millions of litres of milk have gone down the drain. Farmers are fearful they won’t have pickers in place for the spring harvests.
The side effects of the coronavirus outbreak point to deep, structural issues in the global food supply chain. A communiqué published on April 14 by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems puts it succinctly, “In a matter of weeks, COVID-19 has laid bare the underlying risks, fragilities, and inequities in global food systems, and pushed them close to breaking point.”
But the communiqué points towards glimpses of “new and more resilient” food systems—notably where public bodies and local communities have intervened. In the UK and across the world, inspired individuals are finding innovative solutions to fix the food crisis.
Back to our roots
Owning a plot goes back 10,000 years, give or take. But nailing an allotment, even in a rural area, is not easy.
At the beginning of April, David Walston, who has a 900-acre farm in Cambridgeshire, launched CoVeg,, inviting local people to work his land and use his machinery. In 24 hours, 110 people signed up to grow vegetables, to be taken home and distributed to members of the community— including the elderly and NHS workers.
“We’re not going to be supplying much in the way of calorific intake, so the idea is really to get people back in touch with the land, allow them to do something productive at this time, and to provide food for those in need,” he says.
Rather than digging for victory, we can grow for British resilience
“The idea is to keep going indefinitely. This is why I wanted a name for the scheme which wasn't simply related to CO-VID, but could also mean Co-mmunity Veg-etables. I have a couple of other farmers who are interested in joining.”
Large farms are flying in experienced pickers from Eastern Europe. But the 30,000 applications sent in response to the “Feed the Nation” recruitment drive, organised by Brighton-based charity Concordia, received 30,000 applications, suggesting a national appetite for agricultural work.
The Landworkers’ Alliance, a union representing more than 1,000 small- and medium-scale farmers and landworkers , has published a list of firms working to create an “agro-ecological land army”.
Farmers are now calling for government support to grow more at home too. Alluding to the famous WWII policy, Simon Turner, director of Low Carbon Farming Ltd, has written, “Rather than digging for victory, we can grow for British resilience”.
Feeding our food
Animal and fish feed accounts for approximately 75 percent of the world’s soy – the farming of which causes widespread deforestation, with huge implications for biodiversity and carbon emissions. In aquaculture (fish farming), the fastest growing food-producing industry in the world, insect proteins are a focus of the latest research.
Mere Trout Farm in Wiltshire is experimenting with black soldier fly (BSF)— insect protein that would reduce or remove the reliance on fishmeal. The larvae are fed on food waste, making them environmentally friendly. It also means they have high antimicrobial and fungal properties, which might even help with reducing disease among the fish.
“With the current prices, buying in feed incorporated BSF would be about 20 percent more expensive than fishmeal based feed,” says Glendinning.
“But if the price of getting rid of food waste increases, that would change. It might be possible to produce our own on the farm and feed them live to the trout.
“As the know-how and technology for small-scale BSF production grow, it will probably tip the balance.”
As the global consumption of meat continues to rise, pig and poultry farmers are also looking at a range of alternative feeds, from algae and aquatic plants to beans and peas.
Cutting out carbon
Processing, packaging and freight drive the global food industry. Supermarkets and major food processors make their mark-ups and flag their brands on ready meals wrapped in plastic. The costs in carbon and waste are significant; the supply chain accounts for 18 percent of carbon emissions.
COVID-19 has accelerated the revolution in food delivered to the door. Dozens of firms now box up fresh vegetables, fruit, dairy products, wines and premium meats. Less packaging and an emphasis on organic is typical across the sector.
While it’s easy to find the big names, such as Riverford and Abel & Cole, a range of apps and web platforms is helping shoppers source from local suppliers. MiLarder provides details, distance and opening times for local food sources in a given area, including farms, farmers’ markets, box schemes and pick your own. Inside the M25, Farmdrop is a farm-to-door style delivery service that connects the consumer directly with local farmers, ensuring maximum transparency and a fair price for producers.
The COVID-19 crisis may link people more closely with local food production systems
Other firms are tackling the food waste problem. Over 30 percent of food produced is wasted globally each year. In London, Oddbox has rescued over 2,000 tonnes of “wonky” veg from going to waste and delivered 400,000 boxes. Olio helps to connect neighbours and local retailers so surplus food can be shared; it is also used for selling garden tools and kitchen appliances.
UK fishing fleets were preparing for Brexit, when COVID-19 decimated exports and closed fish and chip shops. On March 24, Plymouth’s fishers, merchants and trawlers set up Call 4 Fish, which arranges deliveries of fresh catch across southern and eastern England. The web platform is tackling the paradox of the UK fishing industry, which exports fine produce while imported fish forms the bulk of retail.
“We’re doing a lot of matchmaking,” says Terri Portmann. “We’re linking fishmongers and processors up with local fleets they didn’t previously have any relationship with. The response from the public has been amazing, but now we need to see the supermarkets up their game and stock UK fish— as happens in France.”
Not all food revolutions will be local. Fast-evolving sciences such as soil-free hydroponics and aeroponics are transforming the very notion of farming. Indoor “vertical farms”, which stack processes upwards rather than outwards—taking up less green space—often require lots of capital.
Ynsect , based in Dole, eastern France, recently raised $125m— the largest ever agritech investment round outside the US—to scale up production to more than 25,000 tonnes of insect protein a year.
But, Lynn Frewer, professor of food and society at the University of Newcastle, believes localism is fighting back.
“The COVID-19 crisis may link people more closely with local food production systems, in particular as the potential vulnerabilities of the supply chain are now more obvious.
“Some technological innovations, like vertical farming in cities, will deliver a different kind of food localism, and, together with, say, urban gardening linked to horticulture, connect people to food production in a way which has been lost in recent years.”