The food supply chain is a complex and fragile system that brings food from farms to our plates. It’s made up of many different players, from farmers and food manufacturers to retailers and consumers. And it’s vulnerable to disruptions at any point along the way. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the vulnerabilities of the food supply chain and it’s also highlighted the importance of a robust and resilient food system. In this article, we’ll explore the five biggest threats to the UK’s food supply chain and how they affect you.
The environment plays a critical role in the UK’s food production, which in turn comprises between 50 – 60% of the total food supply chain. This is under threat from climate change and natural disasters, which can lead to supply chain disruptions that could have a lasting impact on the food supply. The changing climate is a particular concern for the UK because it’s an agriculturally sensitive country. If nothing is done to combat climate change, we can expect to see increasing droughts, flooding, and temperature fluctuations especially in the south of the country. This could have a huge impact on crop production, leading to lower yields, escalating prices and the failure of small farms. Natural disasters can also cause serious damage to food production. This was seen during the floods in December 2015, which affected around 40% of UK arable land. The damage from floods can take months to repair and is extremely costly.
A robust economy is a precondition for a safe and sustainable food supply. One of the biggest economic threats to the food supply is a fall in the value of the pound. This happened following the EU referendum, causing the cost of imported food to rise. When the currency is weak, imported food becomes more expensive, which can lead to shortages and higher prices for UK consumers. If the pound remains weak, we’re likely to see more products becoming scarce. There’s also a risk of food fraud, which is when products are mislabelled or contaminated. This can be a problem even during periods of prosperity but it’s more likely in a recession, when demand for cheap food is high. This makes it a lucrative time for unethical or unscrupulous businesses to sell contaminated food.
The UK food supply chain is heavily reliant on immigration, which has come under threat since the EU referendum. If immigration is less reliable or frequent, the food industry would likely be worst affected. Immigration plays an important role in food supply chain operations including harvesting, packing, and processing food and transporting food in and out of the country. If immigration is fully halted, food supply chain operations will face serious difficulties which will likely lead to food shortages and further price hikes.
The UK is an extremely stable country, with a diverse society that is built upon a highly complex infrastructure that is so reliable that it is taken for granted. There is a saying that society is only ever 3 meals from revolution, which is essentially pointing out the fact that ensuring that the population is able to access food is fundamental – the moment this starts to appear in jeopardy there is the risk of anarchy. One only needs to look to Sri Lanka in recent months to appreciate the truth of this statement. It is therefore paramount that food security is taken extremely seriously and necessary steps are taken to ensure that any shortages don’t escalate into public panic.
The UK food supply chain relies on a number of different technological systems. These include the internet and supply chain management software. Unfortunately, these have been threatened in recent years and it is appreciated that cybersecurity is a serious threat to the food supply chain. Food companies often operate on the cloud and store data in a central location. This makes them vulnerable to cyberattacks – if hackers successfully infiltrate a company’s servers, they can cause a lot of damage. This includes stealing personal data and sabotaging supply chain operations.
The food supply chain is complex, which makes it vulnerable to disruption. The recent pandemic has revealed some of the weak points in the UK’s food supply chain. The best way to keep the food supply chain secure is to be prepared for disruption. This includes having a robust and resilient food system which ensures that when a threat emerges, the food industry has the right response in place. This could include temporarily halting operations, rerouting shipments, or providing information to customers. If a threat is uncovered, it’s important to react extremely quickly as this will limit the potential damage and keep the food supply chain running smoothly.
From a householder’s perspective, you can insulate yourself from food supply risk by growing your own food and/or increasing the quantity of long shelf life foods you have at home.