BY ANY standards it has not been a week with any good news.

Coronavirus moved from being a potential problem for the economy to a real one; the end is far from being in sight and it fits well with the old adage that things will get a lot worse before they get better.

The pan-European nature of this virus has to have implications for the decision by the UK to remove itself from most European institutions. This included the system for flagging up the risk to other member states from diseases, presumably including the Alert system for animal health and food related diseases. This appears to be about principle rather than science, with the government even pulling out of arrangements for ensuring the safety of commercial air travel by European carriers. A question for another day is whether London will go it alone with similar measures, or view this as an costly alternative.

One of the things the UK will, again presumably, no longer be involved with after Brexit is complete are the various market observatories operated by the European Commission. The aim with these is to make information available about global and national markets, in the hope that information will allow farmers and others to make better decisions. These were slow to get going properly but are now working well. This month the one that covers beef finally delivered what looked like good news – but it came with a caveat about future prospects for the sector.

The good news was that the beef industry, according to the Observatory, has recovered from the low point hit last summer. Beyond that things are less positive. The recovery is in place, but prices are still below where they were in 2018 and that is likely to remain the situation. The other concern is that the improvement is more down to good luck than good planning. Global meat prices have been driven up because demand has risen sharply for all meat in China. This reflects the damage to domestic pork production there from African Swine Fever. This made China an open goal for exporters, particularly from South America, and the old adage that a rising tide lifts all boats held true.

This has been one of the key drivers for improving prices in Europe. This happened because it was based around an unexpected event in China, meaning demand rose without production being able to rise and dampen the impact. What was worrying in the report was that it included a warning about current pressures. The obvious one is the impact of coronavirus on potential demand for meat in China. The other was that the steady drip of bad publicity about the link between meat eating and the environment has moved from being an irritation to a trend that will impact demand.

The report says the interest in plant-based alternatives to meat is helping to create a negative image of meat and meat eating. This is a trend that is here to stay. From this report it is clear the industry cannot dismiss the pressure being exerted by activist groups on their industry. Put all these factors together and the message of the Meat Market Observatory is that the ship has steadied from last year, but there are still some huge rocks ahead.

Coronavirus is of course the issue of the moment, eclipsing even Brexit for news time. We all dislike intensely those seeking to profit from this disaster by trying to sell everyday products, such as hand sanitisers, at exorbitant prices. This is a band wagon farmers cannot be seen to be climbing onto, but one result of what is happening will hopefully be that consumers will place a greater value on the comfort that comes from having on their doorstep a secure supply of quality food.

This looked to be at stake as the government pursued post-Brexit trade deals that would open the UK market up to the cheapest food from around the globe. Before coronavirus there may well have been politicians that thought this was a good idea and who believed they could view agriculture as being about the environment rather than food production.

However if those politicians think people are worried about dried pasta and toilet rolls disappearing off supermarket shelves, this would be dwarfed by a real food shortage from an over-dependence on imports. That is a message that must not be forgotten when coronavirus eventually drops out of the headlines.