Helping improve how Britain feeds itself in times of crisis and beyond

From farm to fork, the pandemic impacted every stage of the food chain.

Herts researchers examined the wide range of food-related policies the government introduced to support the food supply chain during the pandemic. Their expert analysis and insights will help support the transformation of food systems in the UK, enabling policymakers to better adapt to future issues impacting the food supply chain.

Food-related policy interventions were introduced by multiple government departments to address issues caused by the pandemic. The Food Standards Agency put in place remote inspections of farms and relaxed food labelling, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs enabled a supply of seasonal agricultural workers, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy relaxed competition rules, the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government amended rules to allow pubs and restaurants to operate as takeaways, and Her Majesty’s Treasury created an ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ discount  scheme to encourage people to return to hospitality.

Beyond the early weeks of the pandemic, the UK might not have suffered significant disruptions to overall food supply as a result of COVID-19, but parts of the food chain experienced more serious issues than others. Milk farmers found themselves pouring away milk as the coffee chains who feed our latte habits remained closed, and beef producers were forced to transform restaurant-quality cuts of beef into lower-priced minced meat as the food chain was unable to redeploy food from hospitality and catering to supermarkets fast enough.

Our researchers found that some food-related policy interventions worked well, such as those to ensure food supplies were available from farms and in supermarkets, but other interventions lacked impact, fell short of their intentions, or created unintended consequences. For example, the Department for Education grappled with policy around the replacement of free school meals, leading to high profile campaigns by footballer Marcus Rashford and civil society groups lobbying for better food access for vulnerable families before policy action was taken.

More broadly, there was a failure to prioritise healthy eating despite a link being established between health and COVID-19. Examples include food parcels being nutritionally-poor, the incoherence of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which lowered the cost of meals at fast food outlets, and poor messaging around healthy eating compared to other countries.

To support robust food systems that are fit to handle the food production and supply issues of the future, our researchers’ recommendations include better involvement of external stakeholders in policymaking, checking the broader coherence of individual policy interventions with other societal goals – such as health, and building on the impressive level of cross-government coordination which took place to institutionalise cross-government working on food policy.

By Professor David Barling and Dr Kelly Parsons, Centre for Agriculture, Food & Environmental Management

David Barling headshot Kelly Parson headshot

Find out more about Food research at Herts.