BRITAIN’S FOOD supply chain could be under threat if the UK and Scottish Governments don’t implement a coherent food strategy during the Coronavirus outbreak.

With Westminster and Holyrood’s attention firmly placed on protecting the NHS, there is fear within the food chain that cracks are already showing in the road from field to fork.

Currently, there is enough essential food being produced across the country – however the issue lies with the availability of staff for its processing and distribution.

Arable farmer Gordon Rennie from Fife implored the UK and Scottish Governments ‘to get a grip on food supply’ and put food production and delivery at the top of the agenda: “It was only six weeks ago that UK Government advisor Professor Tim Leunig said that Britain doesn’t need farming! Well the world has certainly turned upside down since. Amongst all of this anxiety around the Coronavirus one thing which has hit home is how vital farming, agriculture and home-produced food is to the nation.

“The first duty of any government in a civil society is to be able to feed the nation – when people have no food, that is when revolutions begin,” he continued. “We are not short of essential food but staffing shortages will curb our ability to process and transport that food to consumers.

“Holyrood and Westminster need to step in to gear and ensure the infrastructure is in place to distribute food," said Mr Rennie. "They need to mobilise the army like we saw during foot-and-mouth. Similarly, we have scouts and youth brigades as well as people no longer working – we should be mobilising the nation to harvest broccoli and pick fruits."

There are moves afoot currently by NFUS to encourage people to step up and fill labour gaps in horticulture and other dependent industries, however Mr Rennie stressed that without government intervention this wouldn’t be enough.

Turning to the May 15 deadline for SAF forms to be filled in, he added: “We are in a state of national crisis, farmers cannot be filling in bloody forms. We couldn’t sow crops in the last three months of 2019, so an extra month extension is needed to give us all some breathing space,” he urged.

“When this all pans out, we can never be in a position again where we rely on importing 50% of our food. All this nonsense about planting trees, well my message to Nicola Sturgeon is ‘you can’t eat trees!’”

Currently 48% of food consumed in the UK comes from around the world and 29% of that is from Europe. Chief executive of the Road Haulage Association Richard Burnett, who represents Britain’s 600,000 HGV drivers said: “We are beginning to see impacts on the supply chain of products from European countries like plum tomatoes and pasta from Italy. Those sorts of things are all slowing because of gridlock to a degree passing borders through Europe.

“We have never seen anything of this scale before,” he continued. “We are managing to get product through at the moment but feedback I’m getting from distribution businesses is that we are seeing probably a 50% downturn in terms of what is coming out of Europe at the moment.”

He explained that there has been a ten-fold increase in what people are buying because of stockpiling.

“It is like Christmas without the planning. There is only so much you can push through distribution at any one time.”

Mr Burnett also pointed out that most of his truck drivers were over 50 and that the majority of milk tank drivers were aged between 60 and 70 which presents concerns over whether they should safely be continuing their work during the outbreak.

He concluded: “As an industry, we have been screwed down by retailers and manufacturers trying to drive greater productivity for years and years. People just expect stuff to happen and food to be there. This is a real wake up call to consumers – as an industry we have been taken for granted for a long time.”

Dairy farmer and chair of the NFUS regional branch for Dumfries and Galloway, Colin Ferguson, concurred that any disruption to the supply chain will be due to staffing issues not food production: “People are panic buying and clearing the shelves, but the issue isn’t that the product isn’t available, it is getting it to the shelves to meet increased demand – the supply chain is taking a week to catch up.

“Since Boris Johnson announced tougher measures on restricting people’s movements on Monday night, we are already seeing parts of the supply chain taking a hit. Markets are shutting down and lambs are being turned away, and killing lanes are closing as staff aren’t coming in to work,” he explained. “There isn’t clear guidance from the Government on vital workers, so as a result, lack of available labour could become the broken link in the chain.”

Although the current epidemic has shed light on the importance of farming in maintaining food security, Mr Ferguson added: “Food producers are extremely important, but we are not heroes or deserving of any thanks. We are simply doing our jobs and hopefully will come off better than some industries from this. The staff working on the frontlines of the NHS are the heroes of the moment and all we can do is make sure we keep producing food and taking extra precautions just now to make sure our staff, families and communities are kept safe,” he concluded.