Between early November 2020 and the end of February 2021, the COVID-19 epidemic in the UK took a dramatic and deadly turn for the worse, forcing two further national lockdowns and resulting in one of the worst pandemic death rates anywhere in the world (Figure 1).
The discovery of a new highly transmissible coronavirus variant in Kent before Christmas accelerated the number of infections and resulted in border closures that brought a temporary halt to cross-Channel supply chains reliant on roll-on-roll-off ferry and rail crossings.
As a result of these pressures, in addition to the ending of the Brexit transition period at the end of December 2020, more immediate and serious consequences for UK food import supplies might have been expected. Yet, by the end of February 2021, these impacts, by and large, had not materialized.
Nevertheless, following sustained increases in global prices in recent months, there are signs that UK food prices may be beginning to rise. If so, this is likely to exacerbate economic pressures on those segments of society who have suffered income shocks as a result of the pandemic or whose food and nutrition security was already challenged prior to 2020.
Such pressures, coupled with uncertainties around the evolution of the pandemic, and thereby the pace and shape of recovery from it, in addition to continued Brexit-related impacts on the food system, mean that even if aggregate import supplies remain robust, broader food and nutrition security in the UK may yet, as elsewhere in the world, be under threat.
The value of all food, feed and drink imported into the UK in the last quarter of 2020 continued to follow broadly similar patterns to the previous two years, with the December 2020 decline actually being less pronounced than in 2018 and 2019 (Figure 2). As this pattern is also observable in import volumes (Figure 3), this suggests that international supply remained robust rather than values reflecting more widespread price increases.
The only category of food that experienced abnormal trends in Q4 was oils/fats and oilseeds, which, as in Q3, had significantly higher import values than in the previous two years.
Air-freighted horticultural imports contracted slightly in November 2020, coinciding with the second national lockdown in England, but the decline was nothing like as severe as that witnessed during the first national lockdown in March and April 2020 (Figure 4).
UK exports, measured both by value (Figure 5) and volume (Figure 6), also appeared to be largely unaffected by the pandemic during the final quarter of 2020, with more food, feed and drink being exported from the UK in December 2020 than in the same month of the previous two years.
However, in early 2021, there are signs that the end of the Brexit transition period is causing issues for UK supply chains. Complications and delays relating to new customs arrangements are constraining UK exports to the EU, as well as internal trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which remains under EU internal market controls.
This has been a particular problem for short-shelf life goods, such as horticultural produce and fish, which had already been hit hard by the closure of the hospitality sector. Indeed, UK retailers have voiced concern that the impacts could get worse from the end of March 2021 onwards when short-term exemptions from some of the most burdensome bureaucracy were due to expire,1 although the UK has since announced its intention to unilaterally extend the grace period for a further six months.
In the final quarter of 2020, the farm-gate price for animals and animal products continued to recover from their slump earlier in the year and, as with the more volatile prices for crops, reached their highest value since 2014 by the end of the year. This reflects rising input prices which increased most markedly year-on-year for animal fodder and plant protection products (Figure 7).
These rising agricultural prices were not, however, generally reflected in UK consumer food prices. Aside from a spike in May 2020, the food and non-alcoholic beverages component of the UK consumer price index (CPI) consistently fell throughout the last three quarters of 2020, even though the overall CPI increased over the course of the year (Figure 8).
By January 2021, however, there were early signs that this trend had been reversed, and more recent measures of weekly online supermarket prices reveal slight generalized food price increases since the beginning of January 2021, with the exception of eggs and dairy products, which initially fell and then rebounded, and meat (Figure 9).
It is not yet clear the extent to which these recent UK price changes are related to COVID-19 constraints, the expiry of the Brexit transition period, or a lagging reflection of farmgate prices. However, if price rises are sustained, they will begin to more closely resemble international prices, which have been increasing since June 2020 (Figure 10).
Indeed, as measured by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), global food prices are now experiencing the sharpest and most sustained increases since the 2010-11 food price crisis and by January 2021 had reached the highest monthly average value since mid-2014 – up 11 per cent from a year earlier (Figure 11).
In part, these global food price rises have been driven by lower than expected maize production in the US, dry weather in South America affecting maize and soy production, and by substantial maize purchases by China seeking to restore its grain reserves as it restructures its agricultural sector following the devastating 2018-19 outbreak of African swine fever.
The COVID-19 pandemic is also starting to have an impact on global food supplies, with many import-dependent countries similarly moving to rebuild national stores of staple crops including cereals, oilseeds and sugars, in the face of uncertainty and sharp declines in global grain inventories.
Global lockdowns earlier in 2020 left many empty shipping containers stranded in Europe and the US, creating a bottleneck and driving up shipping prices when Western consumer demand for Asian goods recovered in the second half of the year.2 These impacts and port congestions have latterly spilled-over to affect dry-bulk food freight as well.
Broader economic-recovery factors are also at play including the impacts of stimulus packages, rising oil-price forecasts and positive sentiment in equity markets.3 But, in the absence of any large production shock, international food prices could yet fall back if Chinese demand for maize imports isn't sustained, so although markets are now tighter and more vulnerable to disruptions, there does not appear to be general alarm at the moment.
Nonetheless, the pandemic has proven to be a compounding factor to conflicts, extreme weather events and pests in driving global food insecurity – particularly in many of the 45 countries in need of external food assistance at the end of 2020 (up from 42 at the end of 2019).4
Food access has continued to be the dimension of food security most affected by COVID-19 and related restrictions – particularly through the impacts of income losses and macroeconomic shocks.5 However, as acknowledged in the February Market Monitor report of the G20-mandated Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS), it is not yet clear where the converging impacts of COVID-19's economic effects, rising food import bills and other supply and demand factors are most likely to result in deteriorating food security outcomes in the near term nor the degree to which potential price increases will transmit to markets serving the marginally food secure.6
The World Bank has been conducting high-frequency phone surveys to monitor the impacts of the pandemic in developing countries.7 These show that, as of December 2020, on average, half of all households in the poorest countries had an adult skipping at least one meal due to lack of resources in the 30 days before the survey.8
Furthermore, in 16 per cent of households across all surveyed countries, at least one adult had gone without food for a full day in the week before the survey. The extent to which this is COVID-19 related isn't clear, but in almost all countries, food insecurity is more frequently reported in households with job losses following the pandemic.9
Recognizing the vital role of food assistance during a pandemic, and that tightening markets are likely to put further pressures on food availability and purchasing power, a group of nearly 80 World Trade Organization (WTO) members – including the UK – issued a joint statement in January 2021 pledging not to impose export restrictions on foodstuffs purchased by the UN’s World Food Programme for humanitarian aid.10
Extending such commitments to open markets and maintaining transparency around supplies could yet prove crucial in heading-off another food price crisis or triggering a series of events that may cascade throughout food systems in unpredictable ways causing avoidable impacts.
For the UK, exposure to food or agriculture trade measures has currently changed little from the situation in October 2020. In fact, there has been a slight reduction in the number of active measures restricting exports from elsewhere.
Although international supply chains into, and out of, the UK fared reasonably well throughout 2020, notwithstanding the acute interruptions to cross-Channel flows at the end of the year, and despite nutrition concerns not being as severe as in many developing countries, there is little room for complacency as the world enters a second year of the pandemic and faces a potentially worsening food security outlook.
Interviews conducted with various stakeholders in UK food systems confirms our understanding that COVID-19 is exacerbating existing inequalities and vulnerabilities within the UK and challenging nutrition security for many people who have suffered income shocks as a result of the pandemic.
The prolonged closure of the hospitality sector, for example, has not only exposed the difficulties of switching out-of-home oriented supply chains to meet increased in-home demand but has threatened the food security of those in the sector that have lost their jobs or have been placed on long-term furlough.
Other structural changes in food access, such as increases in ordering online and the forced closure of traditional food markets, has made business survival less viable for many smaller suppliers as well as maintaining diet quality harder for some marginalized groups.
There is also evidence that, in some instances, maintaining continuity of supply is having adverse impacts on producers. One UK retailer reported that pressures to meet increased demand led to rapid recruitment of new suppliers in developing countries without proper due diligence of suppliers’ practices and knowing that employees did not have access to personal protective equipment. In this case a demand shock resulted in compromised worker safety and upward pressure on local prices.
If exploitative practices undermine trust in UK buyers then, in a sellers’ market, the UK may find access to supplies more challenging. Given that global food supplies are tightening and that waves of COVID-19 infections may ripple for months and years to come, especially in many developing countries where vaccination rates are likely to be low for some time, there is still the potential that supply issues will emerge.
With the UK now substantively decoupled from the EU, albeit with ongoing 'teething problems',11 it has considerable agency in determining the nature, resilience and sustainability of the food systems in which it participates: new primary legislation in food, agriculture and trade are in various stages of being introduced, new trade partnerships are being negotiated and a new National Food Strategy is being developed.
The ways in which the UK contributes to food system resilience globally will also be shaped by the recent merger of its diplomatic and development assistance ministries and the temporary reduction in the overseas development budget announced in the November 2020 Spending Review.12
On the multilateral stage, the UK has significant leadership potential in 2021 as president of both the G7 and UN Climate Change Conference. While these are not food-specific fora, they will be crucial in shaping the nature of pandemic recovery plans and ensuring these are coherent with ambitious actions to tackle climate change.
Furthermore, the UN Biodiversity Conference, the UN Food Systems Summit and the Nutrition for Growth Summit all provide further opportunities this year to ensure food systems proactively support and benefit from these agendas, as recently recommended by the HM Treasury-commissioned Dasgupta Review of the economics of biodiversity.13
Ultimately, both domestically and internationally, the UK needs to be in the vanguard of supporting and enabling post-COVID food systems that head-off near-term food insecurity concerns and which promote long-term nutrition, livelihood and environmental security.
This article provides an update to UK food and nutrition security in a global COVID-19 context: an early stock take, published in November 2020. It has been prepared by Chatham House as part of the research project ‘COVID-19: Food and Nutrition Security During and After the COVID-19 pandemic’, led by the James Hutton Institute and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. It was first published and last updated in March 2021.
Other elements of the project consider domestic impacts and responses within the UK; food and nutrition security outcomes under plausible future scenarios; and future food production and land management options within the UK.
- 1. Financial Times (2021), 'N Ireland food shortages set to worsen, say UK supermarket heads', 12 Jan 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/8bdb2a68-8124-42d6-a477-d4ddf03000d8Back to inline
- 2. Financial Times (2021), 'Shipping costs quadruple to record highs on China-Europe ‘bottleneck’', 19 Jan 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/ad5e1a80-cecf-4b18-9035-ee50be9adfc6Back to inline
- 3. Financial Times (2021), 'Food inflation concerns deepen as prices reach highest level since 2014', https://www.ft.com/content/571a9d68-c8b5-4c56-a539-26fff81e9296Back to inline
- 4. FAO (2020), GIEWS Crop Prospects and Food Situation, 4(12), Rome, http://www.fao.org/giews/reports/crop-prospects/en/Back to inline
- 5. WFP and FAO (2020), 'FAO-WFP early warning analysis of acute food insecurity hotspots: October 2020', Rome, http://www.fao.org/documents/card/en/c/cb1907en/Back to inline
- 6. AMIS (2021), Market Monitor, 85, http://www.amis-outlook.org/amis-monitoring/monthly-report/en/Back to inline
- 7. World Bank (2020), 'High-Frequency Monitoring Systems to Track the Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic', https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/brief/high-frequency-monitoring-surveysBack to inline
- 8. World Bank (2020), 'How COVID-19 affects households in poorest countries – insights from phone surveys', 10 Dec 2020, https://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/how-covid-19-affects-households-poorest-countries-insights-phone-surveysBack to inline
- 9. World Bank (2020), 'Impact of COVID-19 on households: What do phone surveys tell us?', 20 Nov 2020, https://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/impact-covid-19-households-what-do-phone-surveys-tell-usBack to inline
- 10. WTO (2021), 'Group of members issue joint pledge on humanitarian food purchases', 21 Jan 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/agri_21jan21_e.htmBack to inline
- 11. Reuters (2021), 'Johnson says lots of Brexit teething problems, employers fear worse to come', 28 Jan 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-eu-johnson-idUSKBN29X25UBack to inline
- 12. UK Parliament (2020), 'Spending Review: Reducing the 0.7% aid commitment', 26 Nov 2020, https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/spending-review-reducing-the-aid-commitment/Back to inline
- 13. Dasgupta, P. (2021), 'The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review', London, HM Treasury, https://www.gov.uk/government/...Back to inline