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Brexit and coronavirus turbulence is not going away, but there are silver linings

Turbulence caused by Brexit and the coronavirus is not going away, but there are some positive lessons which can be learned from both, says Sue Pritchard, chief executive of the Food and Farming Countryside Commission.

Like many readers, I am grateful for the privilege of being locked down at home on my farm in beautiful Monmouthshire.

 

In many ways, this spring has been delightfully ‘normal’.

 

Lambing went well, the calves are on the ground; fields turned from bog to billiard table in about three weeks flat, and now we’re desperate for some rain again.

 

Beyond the farmgate, however, it is a very different story. Eight weeks into lockdown, and the world is taking a very different turn.

 

Novel

 

These are truly TUNA times (the acronym loved by business schools) – turbulent, uncertain, novel, ambiguous.

 

And now, everyone is talking about the food system. Findings from FFCC’s research with the Food Foundation and You Gov reveal:

  • 42 per cent say the outbreak has changed how they value food as an essential
  • More than 19 million of us (38 per cent) say they are cooking more from scratch and 17 million are throwing away less food (33 per cent)
  • 6 per cent (and 9 per cent of Londoners), 3 million people, have tried a veg box scheme or ordered food from a local farm for the very first time

But alongside these positive changes, we are also seeing more clearly the fault lines in the food system.

  • 5 million (3 per cent) have gone a whole day without eating since the lockdown came into effect
  • 1 million people (16 per cent) are facing food insecurity: 21 per cent didn’t have enough money to buy adequate food supplies, 50 per cent were unable to get the food they needed from the shops due to shortages and 25 per cent were unable to leave their homes and had no other way to get the food they needed

Those of us with insight into the wider food system will be all too aware of where further ‘fragilities’ lie.

 

The response to the Government’s call for a ‘land army’ to pick fruit and veg is underwhelming. These labour shortages, caused by lockdowns and border closures, are affecting countries all over the world.

 

Covid-19 has shut down slaughterhouses in the US, leading to mass culls and fears of price rises and food shortages.

 

Risks

 

With similar consolidation of abattoirs and processing plants in the UK, the risks of this happening here are serious.

 

Some countries are already imposing export bans – Russia and Kazakhstan are holding back wheat; India is doing the same with rice.

 

And Covid-19 is not the only cause.

 

Even before the virus hit the world, global commodity prices were starting to spike, due to climate impacts, and – literally – plagues of locusts, decimating maize crops in eastern Africa.

 

And then there’s Brexit, our own self-imposed crisis, which has the potential to change dramatically the conditions in which food and other essential goods are traded.

 

Amendments

 

In the Agriculture Bill debates last week, Parliament voted against the amendments which would have guaranteed a level playing field on food and farming standards in future trade deals.

 

The arguments will move to the Lords.

 

The turbulence and uncertainty are not going away. But where are the silver linings – can we draw any positives from this?

 

Some say this is the opportunity for a Great Reset; thinking hard about what we really value, what matters to us all, and then ‘building back better’.

 

That YouGov poll also revealed that only 9 per cent of us want to go back to how things were, whereas 86 per cent want to make long-term changes, and for the country as a whole to learn from the crisis.

 

Evaluation

 

What is really clear is that this is not the time for premature evaluation.

 

At present we barely know the extent of the Covid-19 impacts, and taken alongside the other growing ecological, economic and political crises we know are coming, now is the time to take a stock and gather as much evidence, perspective and experience as we can.

 

That’s why at the Food Farming and Countryside Commission, we’re conducting our ‘Learning from Lockdown’ survey as part of our Road to Renewal project – hearing from nearly 400 professionals across the sector on what they think the long-term impacts of the coronavirus might be and the policy responses needed.

 

From my vantage point, a small livestock farm in the Welsh borders, I notice some promising prospects.

 

Insulate

 

From the increasing recognition that ‘community’ matters, to realising that we can’t insulate ourselves on an island from global events.

 

From the rekindled interest in local, fresh, healthy food, cooking it from scratch and eating together, where we can, to a new appreciation for the so-called ‘unskilled’ and certainly undervalued work that makes up so much of the food system.

 

Never let a good crisis go to waste, said Churchill, and there is much more to learn from this one.

 

Sue can be found tweeting at @suepritch


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