Viewpoint by Marion MacCormick

I was heartened to see a ‘socially distanced’ queue weaving its way outside my local butchers and it put me in mind of the 'drive-thru' butchers that Claire Taylor wrote about in a recent issue.

The new purchasing norms we have long talked about, but which did seem banished to the past in our ‘time poor’ society, are indeed making a revival.

These unprecedented times have given many of us the time, however, or in some cases less time than we would have liked, to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of our businesses. The level of panic buying might also have given cause to ask the question ‘Are we in a food crisis?.

No doubt about that, but not in the way we might think. I have been saying in recent weeks from my experience of the food chain, that there is food in the supply chain, so the surge in demand and coverage only further exacerbated the levels of anxiety.

But this is only immediate implications. What happens if the virus lingers and the levels of absenteeism really hit our essential workers in the food sector – then the position of food in our hierarchy of needs and expenditure might just see it catapulted significantly up the ranks.

What the Covid-19 pandemic has starkly highlighted is the lack of preparation there is in the UK to handle protecting our basic needs of food and health, and any thought to climate change has now been thrown right our of the pram.

You might have thought what a ‘No-deal Brexit’ had been flagging for quite some time was that the government should have been thinking about what the implications of food shortages might have been. But despite the warnings as far back as when David Davis was around – which does seem a long time ago now – much of the thinking was that the markets and the supermarkets would sort this out.

Well, the supermarkets have stepped up to the challenge to keep the shelves filled, but it is the unseen calamities which are wreaking havoc behind the scenes which are costing dear. Things such as carcase imbalances growing or being undersold, normal markets for offal and skins closed, and fields of daffodils being turned over.

The retailers may be enjoying extra sales (+20.6%) against the same weeks last year up to £10.8bn, but sales are slowing and they will have to readjust again to issues such as waste, a vulnerable and depleted manufacturing base and re-tuning staffing requirements.

The UK ‘just in time’ supply chain has been stress tested, no doubt about it and is still holding out, but what happens if the absenteeism number in the primary growing sector grows and processing stalls?

Some comprehensive Brexit planning might just have forearmed us for where we are now, which seems the elementary part – protecting the needs of society – never mind talk of trade wars, climate change pressure.

But the turmoil for the food chain has just surmounted the first hurdle and there are many more challenges to come:

* Will there be enough people to pick our Scottish crops?

* How will we manage if our farmers suffer absenteeism from delivering animals to market?

* What happens if the normal imported stock does not get refilled for some time – are there UK alternatives?

* We might even see Scots willingly wanting to work back in the fields and valued as purposeful employment?

There is talk about shopping behaviours returning to normal or what is the new norm, but let’s hope some of the great local initiatives, like drive-thru farm shops, retain the current interest and momentum. From my experience shoppers can be fickle, as the crux in recent years has always been convenience and prices.

Our industry representatives need to continue their valiant job of educating the policy makers that food does not just grow on trees – but in the fields and on the hills, as there is a lot riding on this for the direction of future policy.


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