by Marion MacCormick

Seven or eight weeks ago, we saw the most profound change in the way the nation buys breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Until then, somewhere between a third and 40% of food and drink was bought to eat away from home and the current difficulties of the dairy sector illustrate this drop-in demand acutely.

We all know now that people are not going out and essentially the lockdown has also determined there is nowhere to go, except to a growing number of valiant catering businesses who have modified their working practices to allow for takeaway and home delivery.

The heartening news is that many of these are family run, versatile businesses which can keep a family working, or butchers with small lean teams, all of whom can operate nimbly and safely.

Our eating habits, or that of the majority, are not the only imposed changes on our daily routine, what we are buying has a few stand out items in volume too. Bread-making is up +652%, despite the fact our millers cannot mill the flour and pack it in standard 1.5kg bags fast enough.

Not surprisingly, its baking partner, block butter, was also up +34%, but also boosted by a revival of toast and breakfast occasions which were on the slide as people were eating alone more and on the hoof.

James Porter was bemoaning the lack of hair styling, well there might be few secrets out there too with purchases of self application hair colourant up 100% as the vanity of public prevailed. We cannot forget, it is important to feel good about yourself – take note!

Not surprisingly, sales of toilet roll have levelled off as sanity returned, but the hype did see sales of this key commodity surge by 190%. This episode highlighted the more self-centred side of the British consumer.

If my local butcher is a reliable sounding board, this sector has seen sales double in these difficult weeks and have even had to reinstate the Sabbath as day of rest, to regroup and restock, with the neighbouring fishmonger recounting the same story. Not something they're going to lament either and this is backed up by the pollsters (AHDB) quoting butcher sales +43% in April.

The results of the recent YouGov online poll commissioned by the RSA’s Food and Farming Commission, very much chime with these anecdotes. The survey indicated there is an appetite for change, with 42% saying the outbreak has made them value food more, with 38% saying they are cooking more from scratch, and 17% throwing less away. These are big numbers in behavioural change.

There were negatives, though, and the demographics of the online pollsters might need to be verified versus a purely Scottish survey, but on the whole the trends from this comprehensive study were encouraging from a local sourcing perspective.

The retail supply chain did hold up surprisingly well, too, given the pressure it was put under. Ironically, some of the protracted stop/start prep for Brexit possibly forearmed the supermarket sector.

Many had given considerable time readying themselves for a no deal scenario and how to mitigate against potential shortages, which unwittingly prepared them for the unforeseen supply chain shock the pandemic caused.

What many commentators in the food sector are rightly focussing on, is that there really are no comprehensive plans for ensuring the UK remains fed in a crisis. Although food is listed as one of the 13 key sectors in the Civil Contingencies Act, the guidance on its protection in an emergency stretches to less than a page.

The volume of British food originating from here, and being consumed in the UK hovers around 53% of the total. This had dropped from a high of 67% in 1988. Throw in another pandemic, some trade wars or the effects of climate change and these pressures could start to make this status quo on food look precarious.

So, what about Scotland’s resilience from a food security perspective? Well the butcher's position illustrated how our local network stepped up to the plate and revealed to Joe Public what was still available in the local area. Several of our larger processors stepped in to provide branded product south of the Border too, as our shorter supply chain in Scotland continued to allow easily accessed primary produce.

Just-in-time supply chains are brilliant for a society desiring choice and convenience, but are inherently vulnerable. We’ve now had two ‘once in a generation’ threats to the food industry in the space of six months (no-deal and Covid-19) and with Brexit negotiations still to be settled, climate change and ongoing trade wars, there appears no reason to rule out further disruption.

It is time for government to step in and pull its weight in improving the resilience of the British food system and our prioritisation in safeguarding food.

Much like the financial crash of 2008, which led to fundamental reform in the Bank of England’s role in protecting the banking sector, Covid-19 must do the same for food.

(Marion MacCormick is a leading food business analyst and the former fresh meat director for Aldi, which under her guidance became and still is a champion for Scottish produce)