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The beginning of the pandemic was synonymous with images in the media of empty supermarket shelves and shoppers with overloaded trollies laden with bottled water, hand sanitiser and toilet tissue.
As parts of the UK economy faced intense labour shortages due to a lack of workers and unsustainable levels of supply and demand at the start of the pandemic, other industries were closed down completely, creating an economic crisis that has existed alongside the global health crisis.
With masks having to be worn in shops and limits on how many people were allowed in store at supermarkets, the British public faced substantial restrictions on their personal freedom. As delivery slots disappeared seconds after being released and staple items were listed as out of stock for many weeks, people discovered the uncomfortable truth: the ease in which they had previously had instant access to the food that they wanted was gone.
In the developing world, the pandemic intensified an already delicate situation, where many face disease and malnutrition on a daily basis. During the last year global hunger levels have reached a record high. With food insecurity and hunger levels being their highest in half a decade, vulnerable people have disproportionately felt the effects of the pandemic.
Today, an estimated 155 million people face acute food insecurity, and although conflict remains the key driver, the pandemic has undoubtedly revealed just how insecure our global food systems are.
What are food shortages?
A food shortage occurs when the required amount of food in a region or area is not available. This can lead to food insecurity. Acute food insecurity happens when a person’s life (or livelihood) is immediately threatened due to a lack of food and nutrition.
A food shortage could occur due to:
- Extreme weather or natural disaster.
- Failing crops (due to pests, bad weather etc).
- War/political conflict.
- Disease/health crisis.
Food shortages can also be a result of labour shortages or problems within the distribution or supply chain.
In the UK, we have seen COVID-19 cause disruption to our everyday lives and change the way we shop, socialise, get our education and go to work. One of the effects of the pandemic restrictions has been a lack of the items we would normally buy on the shelves in stores and supermarkets.
For many, this is an inconvenience and can lead to forced dietary changes and increased stress. For some, especially those already living in food poverty, the consequences of a food shortage can be more serious.
Food shortage due to COVID-19
The food shortage has been caused by a number of factors:
- Staff having to self-isolate – Staff having to self-isolate either through testing positive for COVID-19 themselves or because they have been alerted to being in contact with a person who has tested positive by the NHS test and trace service, means that businesses struggle to maintain output and standards.
- Staff absences within the food industry have contributed to delays in deliveries and a shortage of food on shelves, which include:
– Supermarket workers.
– Business owners (farmers, greengrocers, butchers, deli’s etc).
– Delivery drivers.
– HGV lorry drivers (responsible for transporting stock, importing and exporting food).
– Warehouse workers.
– Factory workers.
– Slaughterhouse workers.
- Issues with import/export – Large amounts of food are imported to the UK from abroad. The impact of COVID-19 has been felt around the globe and labour shortages, plus the health crisis abroad, have also disrupted the supply chain which has contributed to food shortages.
- Struggling hospitality – The hospitality sector has been seriously affected by restrictions imposed due to COVID-19, with thousands of hotels, restaurants, pubs, cafes and nightclubs having to close down for many months. Even once restrictions were lifted and venues were able to open back up, many are running with reduced menus, reduced staff and are struggling to source some of their customers’ favourite items.
How to solve a food shortage
Consumers can shop savvy and take some responsibility for their shopping habits so they do not contribute to a food shortage. One simple way to be a more responsible shopper is to avoid panic buying. It is not sensible to buy excess items, especially ones that will end up being surplus and discarded, whilst others have to go without.
Consider donating items to charity food banks or community pantries, whether that means picking up something extra at the supermarket to add to their donation point (usually located by the entrance or exit) or going through your own cupboards to see if you have anything to spare.
You can check if these kinds of initiatives are running in your local area and, if not, you could think about starting one or even just doing a collection at work or your local school to donate to those in need. Redistributing food within a locality can be a decisive, short-term solution to help those short of food.
The burden of solving food shortages is on governments. Support needs to be given where it is most needed and sometimes this might mean crisis talks or the temporary redistribution of aid. It also means governments making long-term, domestic plans for economic recovery.
What will we see due to the food shortage?
The effects of a food shortage within the UK may be as follows:
- Price increases.
- Restrictions on the number of items that can be purchased.
- Fewer deliveries.
- Shopping habits changing (short term and long term).
- Reduced menus at restaurants and takeaways.
- Vulnerable people going hungry.
- Increased reliance on food banks and charities.
- Households having to compromise on quantity and/or quality of the food they consume.
- Businesses struggling or closing down completely.
- Empty spaces on the high street, with fewer food businesses occupying physical premises because they have moved online.
- Pressures on schools and local authorities to provide food or vouchers to families in need.
Food shortages in the developing world will mean that some people face crisis, malnutrition and even death.
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns and restrictions have put unprecedented pressures on businesses. This has been felt the most by small businesses, who may not have had a ready cash flow to tide them over.
The UK government released support grants, business loans and millions of pounds on furlough pay to try to keep the economy afloat.
The way the pandemic has affected supply and demand, as well as restrictions on which businesses can open and who can access them, has meant a time of transformation and diversification for many.
This has meant more and more commerce has moved online, many more businesses have had to adapt to offering a delivery service, or increased delivery service, as well as having to rethink what they stock and how they order in new items.
A ‘last minute’ model for stock ordering is no longer practical in the current climate and now, more than ever, food businesses have to make sure they are staying up to date with the latest market trends and global news as well as finding ways to stay in touch with their customers.
Healthy animals have also had to be destroyed due to lack of qualified slaughterhouse workers.
How to prepare for food shortages
As consumers, when presented with the possibility of a food shortage we can take the following action to prepare ourselves:
- Stay calm – Panic buying causes stress and means that others have to go without. Avoid buying far more than you need ‘just in case’ or buying bulk items that you are unlikely to use. If the exact items that you need are unavailable consider a sensible alternative. People can get stuck in a negative cycle with food; making a change to your spending and eating habits can have a positive effect.
- Plan – Make lists and buy what is needed, plan meals, buy sensible amounts so you will not end up with excessive items to store.
- Pickle or freeze – Think about how food can be preserved at home such as pickling or freezing. Bacteria struggles to grow in highly acidic environments, so vinegar or lemon juice can preserve food. Beetroot, cucumbers, asparagus and cabbage are all very tasty pickled. It is easy and cheap to do and means that healthy options are still available in times when you may be struggling to get fresh vegetables. Frozen food lasts significantly longer than fresh food. Many items are suitable for freezing, so placing them into the deep freeze on day of purchase will prolong their shelf life.
- Bake – Bread has a relatively short shelf life but is considered a staple of a traditional Western diet. If you are struggling to get to the store or to buy baked goods, or you find the bakery shelves empty, there is a selection of easy baking recipes online. Bread products can be made relatively easily using flour, water and yeast. There are also many simple recipes for cakes and other baked goods available. Baking at home is a great activity to get the kids involved in, especially if many of the other activities they enjoy are disrupted due to the ongoing pandemic.
- Be more sustainable – More and more people are deciding to grow some of their own food. Certain fruit, vegetables and root vegetables can be grown even in small gardens or pots. Cooking from fresh and trying to break the cycle of reliance on convenience foods or ready meals that many people have developed in the modern world, also helps us to be more sustainable, use less plastic and create less waste.
- Try to budget – Food shortages affect the most vulnerable households the most. Not everyone can afford to spend a large amount in one go on food shopping and survive on buying small amounts, as and when. If you are struggling to afford food, try to renegotiate your budget and see if there are any cuts that you can make. Buying one large grocery shop with everything you need (assuming you can find it) to last several weeks usually works out cheaper than lots of small trips. Convenience stores are always significantly more expensive. Consider the local markets and greengrocers as well.
- Make swaps – The meat industry has struggled during the pandemic. Making a swap to lentils or pulses for dishes such as lasagne, cottage pie or stews is healthier and cheaper. Due to their long shelf life and high protein content, dried beans, pulses and lentils are an ideal staple to keep in the pantry to use during times of food shortage.
Governments also have a responsibility to ensure food security for their citizens.
This might include:
- Using strategies to maximise domestic capabilities for food production (where possible) to offset against import disruptions.
- Increasing imports of staples in preparation for predicted food shortages.
- Funding and support available for those in dire need.
- Working with retailers and distributors with transparency (to avoid supply/demand crises that were seen at the beginning of the pandemic).
- Having sufficient funding to invest into research and modelling so past mistakes are not repeated and sensible predictions can be made to better inform a future response in an emergency.
How has COVID-19 made food shortages worse?
There are some areas of the world where people already suffer widely from food insecurity. In the West, a lot of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on food availability relates to shortage of workers or supply chain disruption.
In the developing world where people already had limited access to healthcare and may already have been suffering from illness or malnutrition, the impact of the pandemic has been felt more deeply.
Although the global pandemic has no doubt intensified food shortages in countries around the world, because of the timing of the pandemic and Britain leaving the EU, it is difficult to extrapolate the exact cause of all the disruptions and shortages that have been experienced by British consumers in recent times.
Panic buying, labour shortages directly resulting from what has been referred to as the ‘pingdemic’ (people being notified to self-isolate by the NHS app) and export disruption from countries affected by COVID-19 are undoubtedly linked to the global pandemic situation.
Some of the other issues that have been publicised, such as the recent petrol shortage and lack of physical labour to harvest British crops or slaughter cattle, are more likely to be a result of tightening restrictions around visa requirements due to Brexit.
The effects of COVID-19 have certainly contributed to a shortage of some goods and services in the UK, but they cannot be blamed as the sole cause.
Trade associations representing the food and drink industry have suggested the government implements a one-year visa system to recruit workers within the food industry including HGV drivers, agricultural workers, butchers and chefs, to aid with economic recovery.
What foods will be in short supply due to COVID-19?
Panic buying early on in the pandemic resulted in shortages of rice, dried pasta and toilet roll. Although the government repeatedly reassured the public that there were sufficient supplies available, unprecedented demand for these grocery items meant that shops could not keep up, resulting in some imposing limits on the purchase of these items.
More recently in the UK there has been widespread reporting of fuel shortages, with long queues of cars at petrol stations and media images of makeshift cardboard signs emblazoned with the words ‘no fuel today’ displayed by the pumps.
There has also been a recent shortage of CO2 meaning that there was difficulty producing carbonated drinks, including sparkling water.
Where are the worst food shortages due to COVID-19?
Countries all over the world have been affected by COVID-19 related lockdowns, travel restrictions, severe disruptions to their health systems and food shortages, but the impact of the pandemic has been felt the most in areas of the world that were already struggling.
Parts of Africa, such as Zimbabwe, are suffering from a threefold crisis:
1. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic (including lack of access to effective vaccination programmes).
2. Climate related disasters such as drought and cyclones.
3. Economic downturn and high unemployment rates.
In Sudan, a spiralling economic crisis, caused by pandemic related job losses, rising inflation and sky-high food prices, is having a devastating impact on families. In a country where conflict and localised violence had already led to 1.9 million people being internally displaced, now with COVID-19 compounding the situation, more than 1.1 million children are going hungry.
Yemen, cited as the world’s ‘worst humanitarian crisis’ by the United Nations, has 20.1 million citizens facing hunger and 50% of these are severely food insecure. The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the years of civil war that have ravaged the country and disrupted the supply of humanitarian aid that the people of Yemen rely on.
The Nutrition Critical report by Save The Children, examines child malnutrition in the world today and what they refer to as the ‘complex and devastating’ effect of COVID-19. Their in-depth analysis suggests that without immediate action, a further 9.3 million children will be wasted by 2022, with two thirds of cases being in South Asia.
They highlight not only the inequity that exists globally around access to nutrition, but also the disproportionate impact this has on women and girls.
Many of the countries where people suffer from acute food shortages are heavily reliant on foreign aid. If you are able to donate money to a reputable charity that is providing necessary food, shelter and medicine to these people this can usually be done quickly and easily online. UK taxpayers can also boost their donations by 25p for each pound if they donate through gift aid.
Elsewhere, as a consumer, if you are able to, it is always better to buy Fairtrade items. For shoppers, purchasing Fairtrade items means a better quality and more ethical product as in order for an item to have Fairtrade certification, certain standards must be met to ensure fair pricing and better conditions for food industry workers abroad including fair pay and safer working conditions.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in unprecedented changes and challenges that have been felt around the world, with even the richest countries struggling to keep their citizens safe and the health situation under control.
It has also put under scrutiny the very real threat of food insecurity that millions of people have to live with in the developing world and given pause for thought to many in the West about what they eat, how they shop and their expectations around immediate access to food.