THE HEAVY political hitters of the food world have been meeting up, via Zoom, for the annual session of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Talk was of the impact of Covid and the fact it has added an extra 132 million people to the numbers facing hunger. That now stands at over 800 million with no signs this is likely to improve in 2021.

For the countries not facing food shortages, the talk was of the lessons to be learned from the effects of the pandemic. The EU farm commissioner, Janusz Wojciechowski, underlined the new importance of ‘robust and resilient’ food supply chains. Beyond that it has to be said he did not show a great level of vision about how that could be achieved – sticking instead to the European Commission’s predictable mantra on its green solutions and hope over expectation drive to have 25% of EU land organic by 2030.

The success of farmers everywhere in keeping supermarket shelves well stacked through a global pandemic has never been sufficiently acknowledged, not least by politicians. Through successive lockdowns things were bad, but they would have been a lot worse if consumers had been facing empty shelves.

That this did not happen is a credit to everyone along the food chain, from farmers through processors and delivery drivers to the staff in shops. They did more than politicians to prevent a bad situation becoming a lot worse, but have not had the credit they deserve for doing so.

The question now is whether the lessons Wojciechowski said need to be learned will be, via governments in the EU and elsewhere recognising that food security is no longer something to be taken for granted. That commitment has to go beyond lip service and promises and the farming lobby must make sure they deliver.

There are some signs attitudes to food have changed. With all things it is now a question as to whether this is a permanent change, or one that will fade as life returns to a new normality. A year ago, when the lockdown started, there were suggestions it could deliver a more caring, considerate society. That has not proved an accurate forecast.

There are, however, signs with food that some of the changes brought about by lockdown will be permanent trends. If that is the case it will be good news for farmers, since they revolve around issues such as local sourcing and quality.

A study by international consultants, McKinsey for Eurocommerce, an organisation that represents 6m retail and wholesale businesses across Europe, reported recently on the impact of Covid-19 on food markets. Many of the changes are being driven by the closure of the food service sector, meaning people can no longer eat out as they once did.

This has had a positive impact on the retail sector, not least because people have money to spend for meals at home that would normally have gone to restaurants. The result, says the report, has been a rise in grocery store sales. This was 20% at the time of the first lockdown last March, settling to 10% for the full year.

These spending pattern changes are not expected to last, as restaurants re-open and people again become more price conscious in their food shopping. This will be partly down to the impact of the recession as furlough and other schemes end and people face the reality of rising unemployment and falling incomes.

However, the report says the trend that will not change is the new interest in the quality and provenance of food. Local ingredients and regional sourcing are issues that will remain part of the food scene. It acknowledges this will help demand for organic food.

Buzz words driving the industry will include ‘healthy’, ‘regional’ and ‘sustainable’, and these are trends that play well into the political interest there should be in a secure food supply.

This could be a silver lining in some very dark clouds for farmers. They are trends Scotland, with its exceptional food heritage, is well placed to exploit. That is all the more important in the wake of an almost daily diet of figures showing the impact of Brexit on food exports, while imports are largely unaffected.

The latest list for January against the previous year includes, all negative percentages, cheese down 85%, beef 91%, animal feed 80%, lamb 45%, pork 87% and fish 80%.