Flour, food and the future
Up until January 2020 the main issues surrounding any discussion around food was the holy trinity of:
· Obesity and especially Type II diabetes
The government and other agencies appeared to have talked round and around in circles but to the layperson it appears little progress has been made regarding these issues. However, this March a profound new wave of nervousness washed over the food and drink industries. Suddenly all these topics were wrapped up in something even more profound.
The new pandemic shone a startling light on food inequality
It also demonstrated how badly and also how incredibly well the food industry coped when operating under a stress test more profound than anything since the second world war. We saw first-hand the massive fissures that opened up between ‘the haves and the have nots.’ We saw how a general ‘herd’ switch left supply chains struggling. The ‘just in time’ systems couldn’t initially cope with excessive demand at any one time and appeared exposed. The exponential rise in demand for online shopping is just one small aspect of behavioural change that took supermarkets by surprise.
We discovered that we are rather brutally interconnected
The main take away from all of this according to Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall is that we need to now think about developing a global food system to benefit all of us and also nature. We are symbiotically linked and to quote the man himself, ‘we are rather brutally interconnected.’
Covid 19 is a food story that unfolded as the virus spread
After all, it appears to have originated in a food market. Do we now have to question historic food practices and say that now is the time they need to change? This developed into empty shelves in supermarkets and also a boom in home baking. Many people took the opportunity to create things in the kitchen where they controlled the ingredients and reconnected with the joy of producing food instead of relying on processed items.
In addition, we had the spectre of the UK’s leader languishing in ICU
When Boris re-emerged, he said publicly that his obesity probably contributed dramatically to how the virus attacked him so profoundly. The justice movement and the black lives matter demonstrated that practices will not and should not snap back to how things were before the outbreak. Even government U-turns based on the campaigning of a footballer, Marcus Rashford, is extraordinary and symptomatic to another way of thinking about food.
Young people are more politically motivated and want their voices heard
After all, they are growing up in this post pandemic world and will shape its future. People like Christina Adarni, who at just 16 years old heads up an inspirational food campaign group which she set up in 2019. In a recent interview she said that setting up a petition to ensure kids don’t grow hungry is something she could never have imagined would happen in UK. She has an Ethiopian heritage so it’s not difficult to understand the shock this act must have engendered. Her group is led by teenagers and she feels that we all need to be allies in the war against food poverty. It’s ironic that at a time when food has never been so cheap, in relative times, we are facing such inequality. Christina says that ‘we need to listen to young people over things like holiday hunger and lack of access to healthy food and appropriate nutrition. ‘We don’t want to be the generation that has fast food advertising targeted at us constantly.’ She believes passionately that this has to stop and also the trend for celebrity endorsement of very unhealthy food. She says that ‘our health is priority of the food industry. Standing up for children’s rights to food is a political issue and we need a better food environment for younger people.’
Someone who has put health and good food on the menu is Henry Dimbleby
He is Leon’s co-founder and now heads up the national food strategy. He has been considering how we feed ourselves today and in the future. A hug topic has been supermarket supply lines. They were beginning to crack under pressure as people anticipated what a potential lockdown might entail. When the government stated that everyone should stay at home the effect was profound.
Overnight the UK saw the shutdown of the entire out of home food sector
Up until that point it had been supplying the UK with between and 20 and 25% of our calories. So imagine the shift from one sector to another, overnight. The whole supply chain had to realign itself fast. In response to this extraordinary challenge DEFRA set up an 8.15 call every day between civil servants and leaders in the food industry, supermarkets, logistics companies, wholesalers, farmers and food producers. This behemoth of a machine slowly geared up for action and actually food from wholesale supply chain destined to go to restaurants was diverted and donated to local authorities and given out as emergency food parcels to clinically shielded.
From sacks to packets
Flour factories, for example, used to producing huge sacks for the wholesale industry had to work out how to pack and sell to average consumers who were demanding much more for their own use at home. You might imagine that a simple switch meant reconfiguring factory lines and finding packaging suppliers. In theory yes, but in practice it meant sourcing a factory capable of producing 1000s of smaller bags at speed. Millers have said that usually they mill 10 tonnes every 8 weeks now 10 tonnes are being produced every 3 weeks. Demand has been exponential. Will this trend continue? Who knows? However, the boom in lockdown backing and supply strain stress explained why flour was one of the most conspicuous items missing from supermarket shelves.
The strain on the creaking system was also compounded by other worries.
One fear was that the short strait between Calais and Dover through which a quarter of our imported food travels would be closed by French govt. Another was that truck drivers might end up being forced to quarantine in Spain. What would happen if so, many workers were off sick that food processing factories might be forced to close?
Yet just four months later, supermarket shelves are almost fully stocked
Is that the end of the matter? It doesn’t mean there is nothing much more to worry about. Also, it certainly doesn’t mean that we can afford to be complacent. For sure, Henry Dimbleby thinks another crisis will hit the food system quite soon and when it does it will probably look nothing like this. Next time, he predicts, it will be about production and growing rather than pressure on the demand side; what we are talking about is the impact of climate change. We need the right people in the right decision-making positions to help the food and drink industry move forward positively. What do you think the biggest future challenges might be?