What was the impact of COVID-19 on the food system of the UK?

A research team from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Rural Policy Research (CRPR) led by Prof. Michael Winter OBE, focused on the management of the disruptive social and economic impacts of COVID-19 on the UK’s food supply chain.

The research was undertaken as part of the UKRI-ESRC’s open call for research and innovation ideas aimed at addressing and mitigating the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Research Briefs


This suite of five short summaries examine the impacts Covid had on 5 key UK food sectors.  Based on interviews with key stakeholders and critical insight from the project’s Expert Panel, and containing key quotes, case studies and commentary on a range of key issues, these Research Briefs describe the different ways Covid impacted each sector and how, in turn, each responded to the unprecedented challenge that the pandemic posed.


  1. The Seafood Sector
  2. The Flour Sector
  3. The Fruit and Veg Sector
  4. The Meat Sector
  5. The Dairy Sector

Brown Crab and the Triple Challenge of Cadmium, Covid, and Brexit

The brown / edible / ‘pasty’ crab


By Steve Guilbert

Is there anything more evocative of the British seaside summer holiday than eating cod and chips on a windy, drizzly prom whilst fending off marauding seagulls and staring silently out to sea?  Perhaps not.  As Britain’s coastal hospitality sector gears up for what will be a much anticipated and welcome bumper season, its chippies and cafés can look forward to serving up portions of cod and chips by the million.  Rather less likely to appear on many menu boards however, and somewhat less evocative than the paper wrapped, vinegar soaked classic is the uninspiringly named brown or ‘edible’ crab.  This common crustacean, which is abundant in UK waters, is locally landed, sustainable, nutritious, and prized for its flavour on the continent and in Asia, yet remains largely unfavoured by UK consumers.

For the UK fishing sector however, particularly the inshore, small-scale sector, brown crab has emerged as an increasingly important and valuable fishery albeit one that has had to endure an extremely challenging few years as a succession of shocks have disrupted supply chains, tested the robustness of the sector, and forced innovation.

These shocks and their impact on Europe’s brown crab fishery have been examined and explored in a recently published and fascinating report from EUMOFA (European Market Observatory for Fisheries and Aquaculture Products) entitled ‘Brown Crab: COVID-19 impact on the supply chain’.  Based on publicly available literature, research, news articles, available data, and interviews with stakeholders in Norway, the UK, Ireland, and France, the study aimed ‘to provide an understanding of the brown crab value chain and establish the status of the sector both prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic’. It also aimed ‘to give insight into how stakeholders in brown crab catching nations were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and their course of action in dealing with the consequences’.

What follows below is an abridgement/summary of the EUMOFA report with a particular focus on the UK. To read the original report in full and to view associated references, tables and graphs please visit:  https://eumofa.eu/market-analysis#thematic


Brown Crab and Brown Crab Fisheries

Brown or edible crab (Cancer pagurus) is a benthic (seafloor) dwelling species that commonly lives at a depth of between 6 and 40 metres.  It is found in the Eastern Atlantic, from northern Morocco, to northern Norway but its stronghold is in and around the British Isles. Brown crabs have a heavy, oval shaped body and can easily be identified by their ‘piecrust’ edge and black-tipped pincers. The carapace (the hard upper shell of a crustacean) can reach a maximum length of 20 cm and a maximum width of 30 cm.  They’re omnivorous and play an important role in keeping the seafloor free of organic debris, and can live for up to 30 years.

Brown crab is usually caught with baited traps, called pots. These pots have a low impact on the environment and are very selective, limiting the bycatch of other species. Brown crab fisheries, however, are not managed by quotas or a total allowable catch (TAC) which has raised a number sustainability concerns in fishery nations and the EU. In Ireland, for example, a fishery improvement project (FIP) has been created to increase the transparency and sustainability of the sector.


The Brown Crab Supply Chain


In 2019, the FAO reported a total global brown crab catch of 50.480 tonnes. The UK is by far the single largest catching nation, catching around 60% of total global volume of brown crab between 2015 and 2019. The next leading brown crab catching nation is Ireland, followed by Norway and France. Together, these four countries have accounted for roughly 94% of the catches since 2010.  Catches of brown crab in the UK have increased by 27% between 2010 and 2019 and have increased sevenfold since 1950. In 2019 the UK caught 31.004 tonnes of brown crab.



Brown crab may be sold live, or the crab may be processed into products ranging from boiled whole and sold chilled or frozen, crab meat, or other value-added products.  Live crabs are commonly transported either packed in Styrofoam boxes or in vivier tanks. Trucks are used for transportation between catch nations and other nations in Europe, while airfreight is used for exports to overseas markets, predominantly in Asia.

As crabs are highly perishable once killed, they must be boiled shortly after being euthanised. After boiling they can be chilled, frozen, or further processed. Following an initial cooking step, crabs are cleaned, cooled, and packaged. A second heating step is added for pasteurisation (typically 70 °C for 2 min for picked meat or 90 °C for 10 min for whole crab). The product may then be frozen or chilled.

Meat from brown crab is either white or brown. White meat originates from muscle tissue derived from the purse, claws, and legs, while brown meat is derived from the hepatopancreas and gonads inside the carapace. Crab meat may be sold in various combinations of white meat where the origin of the meat is specified (legs, claws, or purse) or as a mixture of all white meat. Crab meat may also be sold as pure brown meat, or as a combination of both brown and white meat. Crab meat may also be used as an ingredient in value-added products such as crab cakes, pates, or pastes


UK Exports

The UK is the largest exporter of brown crab both in volume and value, making up 68% of total export volume and 55% of total export value in 2020.  France and Spain have traditionally been the largest export markets for UK brown crab. Exports to China started to grow in 2016, reaching a peak of 4.187 tonnes in 2018 when they surpassed exports to all other destinations. One year later, however, in 2019, exports to China dropped due to China’s tightening restrictions on brown crab imports (see below). The majority (63% in 2020) of British exports are live crab and fresh/chilled crab both with shell and without. Frozen crab, both whole and not in shell, made up 32% of British exports in 2020.



Although brown crab is the most consumed shellfish in the UK, total consumption is low compared to other countries.  This may be due, the report suggests, to households in the UK typically not having ‘the knowledge to acquire, cook or prepare live and whole crab’ (with most at home consumption, for example, consisting of prepared/preserved crab e.g. crab meat, dressed crab, crab cakes, soups). Based on national catch and export statistics, the report infers that consumption of brown crab is highest in France, Spain, Portugal, and China. France, for example, where consumption of brown crab is seasonal with peak periods throughout June to December, is the main destination for brown crab exports by the major catch nations taking 38% of total export volume and 44% of total export value.


Market Changes and Challenges: The Triple Whammy

Cadmium and the Chinese Market

Cadmium is a nonessential heavy metal which can promote significant adverse health effects in humans and animals. It accumulates naturally in both the white and brown meat of brown crabs. The EU has an established maximum cadmium level for white meat for safe consumption at 0.5 mg/kg. China first banned brown crab imports in 2015, very shortly after the market had initially opened. The ban was lifted the following year but in 2019 China imposed increased control measures on the import of live brown crab. With the exception of crab caught and exported from the Netherlands, this significantly reduced market access to what was a growing and valuable market for all brown crab exporters.

While brown crab does contain cadmium, the stringency of the Chinese testing regime is subject to, what the report refers to as, ‘the political climate between trading countries’. The report also mentions, that interviewed stakeholders suggest that the high mortality rate of crabs during the testing period in China, which may take several days, leads to significant economic loss, and as such is a barrier for stakeholders interested in exporting brown crab to China.



Although the impact of COVID-19 was felt by all brown crab stakeholders, the report found that the effect differed depending on business model. Those who – despite the cadmium testing challenges – were still supplying China were hit hard and early by Covid, as New Year celebrations were cancelled and many provinces went into lockdown. Live and fresh crab exports to Asia were also impacted as passenger planes were grounded and the price of transport increased up to six fold.

In several countries, processors began offering products online and home delivery services to directly reach consumers. Processors who had diversified sales to both retail and HoReCa (Hotel, Restaurant, Café) were better equipped to keep up sales when one market disappeared, as opposed to those who only sold to the HoReCa sector. Many processors also had the advantage of being able to build inventory and postpone sales.

Stakeholders in the UK reported an increase in domestic sales during the pandemic period as customers cooked more at home and became more interested in locally produced species. In addition, several national communication campaigns promoted the purchase of domestic products, including shellfish.

Many fishers in the UK refrained from fishing crab as prices were too low to cover costs. To add to existing challenges, weather conditions also contributed to a poor fishing season. As a result UK landings of brown crab were down by 20% in 2020, compared to 2019.

In terms of UK exports, a significantly lower volume of crab was exported from the UK during the peak season from September to December 2020, 29% and 30% lower than the same period in 2019 and 2018, respectively. The value of exports at this time was 35% and 44% lower compared to the same period in 2019 and 2018, respectively. For the entirety of 2020, the volume of British exports was 28% lower than in 2019, while the export value decreased by 43%.

The single largest reduction in export volume was seen for brown crab destined for China, which was 72% lower in 2020 compared with 2019, falling from 4.072 tonnes to 1.134 tonnes. According to interviewed stakeholders this huge reduction is attributable to a likely combination of cadmium and Covid.  Interestingly, the report notes that British exports of brown crab to the Netherlands increased by a massive 1045% from 2018 to 2020 and remarks that this could be a result either of the Netherlands continuing to function as a hub during the pandemic, or because it offers easier access to the Chinese market (see above).



On top of the challenges posed by Chinese cadmium testing issues and the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK brown crab sector faced its third existential challenge in the space of three years with Brexit and the end of the transition period in January 2021. The EUMOFA report found, based on interviewed stakeholders, that exports from the UK were experiencing delays of 36-48 hours on the border following the end of the transition period. With a live delicate product such as crab this was a very difficult situation to manage and many exporters refrained from exporting in this timeframe. Weeks later, while the situation had improved somewhat, significant delays were still being reported and the administrative burden remained high.  Interestingly, such was the challenge of exporting to the EU, that interviewed stakeholders found it likely that should the cadmium issue be resolved and re-entry to the Chinese market become possible, exports would shift from Europe to China where prices are higher and the administrative burden lower.


The Pasty Crab?

For the post-Brexit UK brown crab sector the attraction of the potentially huge and valuable Chinese market is obvious, but, as things stand, the current cadmium testing restrictions make it largely unviable. So what about the domestic market? This is, potentially, huge as well, but getting more people in the UK eating edible crab poses its own particular challenges.  The EUMOFA report, for example, suggests the greatest barrier in the UK to increased brown crab consumption, is ‘the availability of crab to the consumer as fishmongers are becoming scarcer and retailers are closing fresh fish counters’.  That’s certainly a contributing factor, but so too is a lack of demand or appetite, whether due to a general absence of knowledge about how to prepare and cook a fresh crab or a more basic aversion to the look or sound of shellfish.

There may be however, some encouraging signs. The report notes that during the COVID-19 pandemic consumers became ‘more aware of the options available locally/domestically and, both in support of local businesses and to experiment with diverse ingredients in home cooking, the domestic purchase of crabs increased’.  As with many other new Covid-19 food habits, whether this trend will continue is uncertain. Perhaps the way forward for the unfavoured and uninspiringly named brown/edible crab is a rebrand, as per the pilchard/Cornish sardine. Perhaps the Pasty Crab might tempt you away from your cod and chips. Perhaps not!

National Food Strategy 2021: A quick outline


By Tim Wilkinson

The second part of the National Food Strategy was published on the 15th July in a two-part report: with one part proposing a set of recommendations (‘The Recommendations’ report) and the second presenting ‘The Evidence’. The independent review, led by Henry Dimbleby, makes 14 recommendations to government and presents evidence in four themes: nature and climate, health, inequality, and trade. There are two supplementary reports too: on the impact of a tax on added sugar and salt and a youth consultation. The reports published on the 15th July 2021 are sometimes called ‘Part Two’ of the National Food Strategy; they follow on from ‘Part One’, published in July 2020. But on the NFS website the bundle of reports are called ‘The Plan’. The Government will set out proposals for future legislation in a White Paper in six months.

In the ‘The Recommendations’ report, each recommendation is described, the rationale for it given and the costs and benefits reviewed. Endnotes provide references and further information. National Food Strategy recommendations are:

  1. Introduce a sugar and salt reformulation tax. Use some of the revenue to help get fresh fruit and vegetables to low income families (p.2)
  2. Introduce mandatory reporting for large food companies. (p.11)
  3. Launch a new “Eat and Learn” initiative for schools. (p.14)
  4. Extend eligibility for free school meals. (p.20)
  5. Fund the Holiday Activities and Food programme for the next three years. (p.24)
  6. Expand the Healthy Start scheme. (p.27)
  7. Trial a “Community Eatwell” programme, supporting those on low incomes to improve their diets. (p.31)
  8. Guarantee the budget for agricultural payments until at least 2029 to help farmers transition to more sustainable land use. (p.35)
  9. Create a Rural Land Use Framework based on the Three Compartment Model. (p.42)
  10. Define minimum standards for trade, and a mechanism for protecting them. (p.47)
  11. Invest £1 billion in innovation to create a better food system. (p.50)
  12. Create a National Food System Data programme. (p.57)
  13. Strengthen government procurement rules to ensure that taxpayer money is spent on healthy and sustainable food. (p.61)
  14. Set clear targets and bring in legislation for long-term change (p.68)

News media headlines picked up the NFS calls for sugar and salt tax (for example, see The Guardian, Financial Times). This is Recommendation 1, and proposes the introduction of ‘a £3/kg tax on sugar and a £6/kg tax on salt sold for use in processed foods or in restaurants and catering businesses’ (NFS 2021, p.2). The BBC also highlighted the proposal about the prescription vegetables by the NHS (Recommendation 7, the trialling of a “Community Eatwell programme”) and the raising of taxes to extend free school meal provision (Recommendation 4). Boris Johnson’s initial response to the idea of new sugar and salt taxes was also well reported (e.g. see The Independent, The Daily Mail)

There has been a range of comment from the food and drink industry. The Food and Drink Federation, for example, raised concerns about the implications of the sugar and salt taxes and for consumers and businesses. Seafish highlight that seafood does not feature prominently in the report and emphasize the role of seafood in the nation’s diet. The National Farmers Union (NFU) response suggested making ‘a clear distinction between grass-fed British meat and cheap imports’. The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) particularly welcomed the recommendation of improved food education in schools, while NGO Sustain provided detailed comment and reflection on a range of National Food Strategy proposals.

Dark Kitchens


By Tim Wilkinson

What are they?

The last year has seen a dramatic rise in the demand for takeaways and delivery. A portion of that market is serviced by what are known as “Dark Kitchens” or “Cloud Kitchens”. These kitchens prepare food for meal delivery only; they don’t have tables or offer food for collection. A Dark Kitchen is a restaurant business without the restaurant; there are no waiting staff, no reservations, no mood music, no tablecloths. They are commercial grade commissary kitchens, where food can be prepared, cooked and dispatched to consumers. Usually operating in lower rent areas they can be situated in industrial estates or car parks, sometimes in shipping containers or warehouses with multiple kitchen units, the business model focuses on keeping overheads low, customising spaces to enhance productivity and using technology and third party apps to optimise delivery. In the UK, third party apps such as Deliveroo, Uber Eats and Just Eat reportedly offer food prepared in Dark Kitchens. In the US, companies such as, GrubHub, Uber Eats, DoorDash, Postmates do so.

The disruptive potential of Dark Kitchens (and the third party apps that provide the portal for customer purchasing) for the restaurant industry are of concern to restaurateurs. As the Economist reports, the commission charged by third party apps in the US can leave a slim margin for owners. The digital market place is competitive and presents risks particularly for smaller businesses with less influence when negotiating fees. Apps insights into customer purchasing data provide crucial commercial information and agency in the marketplace, while some businesses feel they are at the mercy of their ranking on the app – where, it is claimed, there is little transparency about why top hits are listed first. But alongside these challenges are stories of dark kitchens as a lifeline, with dark kitchen prepared food delivery providing a way to keep brands alive and in some cases, to expand operations through the pandemic.


A brief and potted history of the term ‘Dark Kitchen’

Searching newspaper databases for the term ‘Dark Kitchen’ hits before 2017, you see phrases like; “for years he cooked for his family in a small, dark kitchen”, “an awful, tinge grey, dismal house with a damp basement and dark kitchen”. But from 2017 dark kitchens stopped being a reference to low light levels. That is when Deliveroo launched their delivery only kitchens called ‘Editions’. Their current website for this brand (Deliveroo ‘Editions’), describes the offer as bespoke kitchens designed for delivery, on all inclusive, flexible contracts at sites that offer potential for growing delivery business and a brand. The terms Virtual Restaurant appears to pre-date the name Dark Kitchen, with various references to it from 2015 (see Barry Popik’s website The Big Apple, which provides a nice insight into the lexicon around “Shadow Kitchens”).


What’s in a name? 

The term ‘Dark Kitchen’ is value laden. I am unsure of its origin. It seems to connote something rather sinister; perhaps relating to their connection to questions about the ethics of the gig economy and related worker rights and pay issues. But it also may convey a view of a business model as too industrial, an anathema to the personal service of a restaurant.

‘Dark Kitchen’ is probably the most negative name for delivery-only kitchens, but a series of other labels offer a range of connotations. Dark Kitchens are also known as: ‘Shadow Kitchens’, ‘Ghost Kitchens’, ‘Cloud Kitchens’ and ‘Virtual Kitchens. I find this range of terms interesting. Rather like choosing from an online menu from a favourite food delivery app – you can pick the term you most like the sound of, while only having a vague sense of who or what might be behind it. To me, the term Shadow Kitchen sounds rather dubious, but perhaps not as malevolent as a Dark Kitchen. The term Ghost Kitchen seems to connote the ephemerality of a delivery only kitchen – the way they can pop-up temporarily and disappear again. The idea of Cloud and Virtual Kitchens seem to emphasise the dislocation of Dark Kitchens from everyday life and their connection to e-commerce.

I wonder if the range of terminology used to describe Dark Kitchens says something about the importance of a sense of place to food and food service. Restaurants are about food, but also the atmosphere and emotions attached to eating and drinking, and the theatre of service. Dark Kitchens could easily be seen as an attack on the importance of a connection between food and the places where we eat; they can be anonymous, windowless shipping containers – not known for their atmosphere. If we choose to see delivery only kitchens in this way then they seem to be merely a node in a production chain, designed to be efficient as possible. But Dark Kitchens are also about another place, often our homes, where food is delivered and consumed. Before the pandemic, takeaway and delivery were viewed as second best to the real thing; to eating out. But Covid has elevated the status of delivery and takeaway. Eating culture has changed. Whether this will be a lasting change only time will tell.


Don’t throw the baby out with the dark kitchen

Although aspects of the Dark Kitchen business model should be questioned, it is worth considering the opportunities they offer. The Independent Help the Hungry campaign with the Felix Project used a social dark kitchen to deliver 1.5m handmade meals using surplus food to vulnerable people and low income families. There may be other opportunities for the Dark Kitchens concept to be used constructively. That is, if we don’t dismiss them, on the basis of a sinister sounding name.

Good Food Enterprises: Adapting to the pandemic, one year – A Summary/Commentary


By Prof. Michael Winter

Sustain has issued a survey report exploring how good food enterprises have adapted to the pandemic one year on.

Good Food Enterprises: Adapting to the pandemic, one year on was published on the 16th June.

Sustain define ‘good food enterprises’ as ‘those that use farmer focussed supply chains, prioritise healthy and sustainable food, and increase access to, and the affordability of, good food. Good food enterprises may be non-profit, social enterprises or for profit food retailers and play a part in their community beyond trading.’

This report is based on a survey of good food enterprises in the Sustain network and the results are derived from 91 responses in March and April 2021, and covers a range of enterprises including producers, suppliers, bakeries, retail, hospitality and community assets.

The key findings are worth repeating in full:

Good food enterprises adapted and diversified to respond to the pandemic; most commonly by creating a delivery service (52%), online ordering (41%), and providing new or different products or services (35%).

63% plan to continue with their adaptations longer term, showing that these changes appear to have benefited their business model.

Almost two thirds reported an increase in customer numbers and just under half increased their revenue, indicating an increase in the use of local, good food enterprises during the pandemic.

There has been more collaboration between local food enterprises and other businesses locally, with 60% reporting increased collaboration between enterprises, organisations and others within their local food networks in the past year and 30% accessing new supply chains.

42% had supported the emergency food response, showing how good food enterprises can contribute to community resilience.

Over half had not accessed local or national government support, including financial support, business advice or access to council resources.

Much of the rest of the report is devoted to some case study examples, mainly quotations from respondents, and conclusions and recommendations primarily about encouraging the good food sector aimed first at local authorities and local enterprise partnerships:

Recognise the opportunity to build local community wealth and revitalise high streets through supporting good food enterprises to fully reopen and grow as we emerge out of lockdowns.

Ensure funding is more flexible to support different needs. A ‘one size fits all’ approach means many good food enterprises will fall through the gaps.

Prioritise the creation of good food jobs as we build back better, supporting community focussed, sustainable and ethical enterprises which are better for people and the planet.

Actively support existing, or the development of, local food partnerships and ensure members of these partnerships are involved in the development of local economic plans and other strategies and plans, as well as local Growth Hubs, to bring in sustainable food expertise.

And secondly directed to national government:

Prioritise investment in small, local food enterprises and initiatives. As part of the green recovery strategies as well as economic recovery/build back better funding including via the incoming Shared Prosperity Fund to ensure there is infrastructure, business support and resources for the creation of new, and support of existing, good food enterprises.

Review national planning policies to make it easier for small and medium enterprises to afford and access spaces and land, including making Community Asset Transfer more accessible.

Commission research to better understand the environmental benefits of small-scale, good food enterprises to help these businesses be recognised for their benefit to tackling the climate and nature emergency.

This list makes for familiar reading for those who follow Sustain and its key members but is none the worse for that. In such a busy and congested market place as food advocacy there is an understandable need constantly to reiterate messages.



Labour Shortages in the Food Chains: COVID, Brexit or both?


By Prof. Michael Winter 

In recent weeks, the press has been full of stories about labour shortages in many parts of the food system. In another recent post on this site CRPR colleague Caroline Nye examines the farm labour situation. Here I will take a look at another part of the food system, transport and distribution. Although there has been much coverage of the labour shortages in the hospitality sector, the problems of the distribution sector are more potent in terms of an actual threat to getting products onto the shelves of retailers.

Logistics UK, the business association representing nearly half the UK lorry fleet (as well as members from rail, sea and air transporters and freight services such as retailers and manufacturers), highlights in its Logistics Report 2021 based on an industry survey, the current labour challenges in the sector. Take HGV drivers for instance. In order to drive an HGV, drivers must both pass a vocational driving test and then maintain a Driver Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC) based on 35 hours of periodic training every 5 years. In the previous four years there was an annual average of nearly 43,000 HGV driving test passes in the UK (57.7% pass rate). The pandemic led to a suspension of tests between April and July 2020.  Consequently there were only 24,626 test passes in 2020 (63.7% pass rate). A further suspension occurred during the 2021 lockdown. There remains a significant backlog of drivers seeking tests, which is a contributory factor to the current shortage of drivers.  Logistics UK estimate 45,000 HGV driver tests were delayed due to Covid, and a further 79,000 European logistics workers returned to their home countries as a result of Brexit.  Moreover, the labour challenges facing the transport sector are not confined to finding drivers.  The report highlights an increased demand for fitter, mechanic and technician roles, and that these were the hardest posts to fill in 2020, presumably also partly Brexit-related.  Nearly a half of respondents to the Logistics UK Industry Survey 2020/21 indicated they had increased staff gross pay, which will clearly be an inflationary pressure in the food sector.

Logistics UK propose the following reforms to help address the labour issue in transport:

  • Reform of the National Skills Fund to include priority Level 2 courses such as HGV driver: Currently only Level 3 courses are funded.
  • Apprenticeship Levy should become more flexible to suit logistics needs. Rigid rules on duration, training hours and work placements make the Levy hard to use.
  • Provision of access to qualified non-UK logistics workers through amended Skilled Worker Visa and T5 Visa arrangements.
  • Continued development of suitable Apprenticeship standards, T-Levels, and vocational courses in partnership with the education sector.

Speciality Food, have highlighted the wider ripple effects in the food sector including for firms with a short supply chain that did well during the early stages of the pandemic. They quote the operations manager of the fine food distributor, The Cress Company:

‘Although Cress are not a direct user of HGV drivers, the shortage of drivers with this type of license has also had a knock-on effect on the availability of good quality 3.5t van drivers. Drivers who have been successful at interviews are receiving counter offers as their current employers panic, potentially putting inflationary pressure on wages.’ 1

On the 28th June, Defra held emergency talks with industry leaders and according to The Grocer ‘a string of supermarket executives told Defra officials they were facing shortages. One retailer claimed this was the most pressure on the supply chain he had seen in 40 years.’2  This followed reports earlier in the week that food wholesaler Brakes had been forced to end its supply of goods to a range of its customers.

As The Grocer points out, the problem is not entirely new but has been severely exacerbated by COVID and Brexit. The sector has an image problem with an average age of 55 years and only 2% of HGC drivers being under the age of 25:

‘The answer is more apprenticeships; company sponsorship of licence attainment; and evolving vehicles, technology and working practices that will support and attract the next generation of drivers. In the near term it’s identifying those ex-drivers who have left the industry to persuade some to come back; and encouraging those approaching retirement to hold back. […]

There is no simple, quick-win solution here, as demand is set to outstrip driver capacity for many months to come. It is therefore important that we collaborate across the supply chain. Industry must work hand-in-hand with government, but to achieve this we must first make clear the serious consequences of a gummed-up and supply-restricted industry going into a summer period of significant staycation-based consumer demand. The industry community and government figured out how to keep the trucks and supplies rolling through the pandemic – we believe urgent collaboration is needed once again to keep the nation fully fed.’ ³

So the answer to my opening question is ‘both’. As we are increasingly finding in this project the COVID and Brexit effects are intertwined. Does it matter if we can’t easily tease out the relative significance of each factor?  Not really, as long as we recognize the complexities and the inter-relationships.


1.  Warning of food shortages “as bad as the first lockdown” | News | Speciality Food Magazine

2. HGV driver shortage: industry and government hold ‘constructive’ talks | The Grocer

3. The government must accelerate driver support to prevent food shortages | The Grocer

South West Farm Survey 2020: Selected Results


By Tim Wilkinson and Matt Lobley


We sent 4000 paper questionnaires to land managers in the South West in late October 2020; sending reminders and receiving responses until early December 2020. We received 1117 completed surveys; a 28% response rate. The survey was distributed to farmers in the wider South West including Cornwall, Dorset, Devon, South Gloucestershire, Somerset, Wiltshire and the Isles of Scilly. We aimed to achieve a cross-section of farm type, size and farmer age group to ensure we had a variety of farms represented in the sample.

Any survey like this is just a snapshot in time and the results should be seen in the context of Winter 2020, when many were expecting a small but relatively normal Christmas and trade negotiations with the EU were yet to be concluded. If we asked many of the questions in the survey again today, we might well receive very different responses.


Respondent Profile

In our supporting material for the survey we asked that the person responsible for day-to-day management of the farm to complete the questionnaire where possible. Respondents were aged from 23 to 98, with a mean age of 63 years (slightly older than the national average). Respondents aged 54 years and under comprised 22% of the sample, 33% were aged 55-64 and 45% were aged over 65. The sample comprised 10% female respondents and 90% male respondents. Most of the respondents were intergenerational farmers; with just 15% reporting they were first generation.


Farm Profile

We received responses from a range of farm types, mainly comprising Grazing Livestock (37%), Mixed (29%) and Dairy (19%), but including Cereals (4%), General Cropping (4%), Specialist Poultry and Pigs (2%) and Horticulture (1%). This mix is broadly what we would expect from the region, given its topography and grasslands, and what we’ve found in previous surveys.

We had a good range of farm sizes represented. One quarter (25%) of the sample were farms under 50ha in size, another quarter (27%) between 50ha and 100ha. Larger farms were represented too; 14% over 250ha.




The Farm Business

We asked participants what the economic performance of the farm business was like compared to 5 years ago. Half of respondents said the business was doing about the same; 28% said they were doing better, 22% said they were doing worse.

We asked participants how they saw the economic prospects of the farm business over the next 5 years; answers were on a linear scale from bad to excellent. Just over half (51%) said the business prospects were ‘fair’, however 27% said ‘poor’, 6% said ‘bad’. There were those who expected a brighter future; 15% said they thought business prospects were ‘good’. Just 1% said they thought business prospects were ‘excellent’. We compared these results to data from the 2016 South West Farm survey; they were almost identical for every category (poor, fair etc.). Looking at the 2020 data by farm type for Livestock, Dairy and Mixed farms, Dairy farms were the most confident with 21% saying they thought their prospects for the next five years were Good compared to 11%  and 13% who saw their prospects as ‘Good’ on Grazing Livestock and Mixed farms respectively.


Covid Impacts

Farmers reported a wide range of problems and benefits arising from Covid. We thought it was interesting that 12% of respondents reported neither problems nor benefits arising from Covid, suggesting that Covid did not seem to be impacting a small percentage of South West farmers in Winter 2020.

If we just look at the question we had on problems arising from Covid, 38% of farmers said they had no problems. Of those who reported problems, 21% said they had lost non-farming income such as from tourism rental. Reductions in the price of farm products was reported too (15%), as was reduction in the price of milk (12%). Less time being available due to caring responsibilities (such as childcare, or caring for relatives) was noted by 11%. A large range of other problems were reported, including public trespass, stress, lower staff productivity and availability, shielding and production being capped.

Answering a question about any benefits arising from the pandemic, 25% said they were seeing no benefits. Of those who reported benefits, 24% reported higher prices of farm products. Interestingly, several of the other most noted benefits were about relationships; 23% reported improved relations with the local community, 9% reported more positive interactions with other farmers and 9% reported closer relationships with buyers. New markets (7%) and demand for direct sales (1%) were mentioned, but certainly not as frequently as one might have expected from looking at media reporting around direct sales.


Plans for the Future

We asked respondents a number of questions about what was influencing their plans for the future. Almost half of farmers (49%) disagreed with the statement that the impacts and uncertainties of Covid were influencing their plans for the future. Nearly a third (32%) were ambivalent, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. Given wide ranging impacts of Covid, it is interesting that only 20% of farmers agreed that Covid impacts and uncertainties were influencing their plans for the future. This may be partly a factor of the timing of the survey – perhaps some felt that the pandemic would soon be coming to an end. But it may also relate to the outdoor nature of much farming work. Compared to the role of future ELMS schemes and climate change, Covid impacts and uncertainties seem to have had less influence on plans.


Disagree Neither Agree
Future ELMS schemes 23% 32% 45%
Climate change 26% 33% 41%
Reducing carbon emissions 30% 33% 37%
International trade deals 31% 40% 28%
Covid impacts and uncertainties 48% 32% 20%



South West farmers were broadly ambivalent about how they thought their farm, the South West and UK would fair outside the European Union. A quarter of respondents strongly disagreed that their farm would struggle outside the EU. The timing of the survey (Oct/Nov 2020) should be noted here; we wonder what respondents would say if we asked this question again now.


Strongly Disagree Disagree Neither Agree Strongly Agree
My farm will prosper outside the EU 13% 16% 43% 15% 13%
My farm will struggle outside the EU 25% 18% 33% 14% 10%
Farming in the South West will prosper outside the EU 14% 19% 42% 15% 11%
The UK will prosper outside the EU 14% 19% 42% 15% 10%

Data and Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Vanessa Rowan Johnson and David Andrews for their generous support of the South West Farm Survey 2020.

Please do not reproduce these figures without permission; contact Timothy Wilkinson

Please note that figures have been rounded to the nearest whole number; so totals may not sum to 100%.

Further considerations around labour in agriculture: New report released examining labour issues and workforce solutions


By Caroline Nye*

The Centre for Rural Policy Research recently published a new report, Farm labour in the UK: Accessing the workforce the industry needs, commissioned and funded by The Worshipful Company of Farmers with additional funding from The John Oldacre Foundation. The report sought to do two things. The first was to determine what the current labour situation looks like across all sectors of British agriculture and to understand how the industry has arrived at its current ‘point of crisis’. The second aim was to examine potential solutions to the labour crisis, especially with regards to matching domestic workers to the more permanent positions in the industry. While a number of reports related to farm labour in British agriculture have emerged since the referendum in 2016, few have collated the existing data in such a way as to not only represent all sectors of the industry, but to highlight the sociological drivers behind both permanent and seasonal labour shortages, as well as the economic. Rather than throw out blanket solutions to the labour crisis, as so often happens among some commentators and public figures, researchers spoke with individuals who are already running initiatives to match people from different sections of society to careers in farming, providing a deeper and more accurate understanding of how suitable these different groups are for farm work, what the barriers might be for the differing initiatives, and how best to go about facilitating the matching process.

The report drew upon previous studies, as well as providing additional empirical evidence from 21 different stakeholders in the industry, including farmers, initiative operators, industry experts and labour experts. While multiple conclusions were reached as a result of the analysis and in-depth interviews, the key message from the report is that things need to change, and this change needs to occur rapidly to prevent the potentially significant repercussions of farm labour shortages across the industry. The research team identified that such change must occur at farm-level, local-level, and national-level as there is no single solution to the multi-faceted issues around farm labour. And this is the case for both the seasonal and permanent workforce. For example, at farm-level, employers need to not only make obvious adjustments such as better working conditions and pay, but they also need to create a more attractive farm culture by becoming better managers, offering more training and creating a more dynamic and forward-thinking working environment. In addition to this, at a more national-level, it identifies how the image of farming needs to change. It details how key influencers, such as parents, teachers and careers advisors to whom young people turn in the pursuit of advice on future opportunities, need influencing so that archaic perceptions of farming are replaced with more realistic understandings of what a career in farming might entail in the 21st century. One of the key messages that the report, and the associated launch which occurred on the 17th June with a broad and well qualified panel, tried to get across was that employers should be looking beyond the limited pool of potential recruits ‘from a farming background’ and open up to offering opportunities to people from all backgrounds. With this in mind, the report examined in more detail how this might be achieved through various initiatives aimed at young people, career changers, service leavers and ex-offenders, among others. The common theme throughout was that farming for many of these groups is an ‘invisible career’ and that more needs to be done to facilitate the matching process between people from a non-farming background and careers in agriculture. How do we connect that young person who has been volunteering on a city farm in London for five years and wants to do nothing else but farm, to the farmer in Devon who needs a dairy worker? This is a key issue which needs addressing. It is all very well improving education, awareness, pay and conditions, but if the matching process itself does not improve then all other efforts could easily be wasted.

It is important to note that the report does not ignore the immigration question entirely. It acknowledges that almost all sectors in the agricultural industry have relied upon migrant labour, whether for seasonal or more permanent positions, for a number of years, and so states the importance of the current immigration policy being both fit for purpose (which it currently is not) and not biased towards any particular sector in agriculture, or against agriculture as an industry. Automation, migrant workers and domestic labour will all be required to contribute to the country’s food production, and while young people, career changers, ex-offenders and service leavers can each form part of the wider solution, no cohort in itself is currently capable of filling the shortage gaps. Farms, the agricultural industry and the government need to stay vigilant, be flexible, and get creative before the crisis damages the structure of the industry permanently.

To read the report in full, please click here: http://socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk/media/universityofexeter/research/microsites/centreforruralpolicyresearch/pdfs/researchreports/Farm_labour_in_the_UK._Accessing_the_workforce_the_industry_needs_.pdf


* Dr. Caroline Nye is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Rural Policy Research (CRPR) at the University of Exeter. Her work focuses  on agricultural labour in the UK, landscape-scale farmer groups (or Farmer Clusters), farmer attitudes to conservation, and methodologies involving social research in the agricultural sector.

The National Food Strategy: rural communities, urban food and good food jobs. What can be done? A Note


By Prof. Terry Marsden*

It will be important for the National Food Strategy to explicitly address and propose a new vision for British food and farming; to outline in some detail where we should be trying to get to, what are the end goals (by 2030, and 2040); and to outline how a combination of market, state and civil society actions can be formulated to achieve these ends. There is always a danger to avoid such an approach, but now is the time to develop a truly radical and innovative food strategy in the UK, and to specify its major goals.

This was the task of equal significance to that which the ‘Scott Commission’ (1942) addressed in the depths of war in its ‘Report of the Committee on Land Utilisation in Rural Areas’ (1942), which then laid the foundations for the immediate post-war agricultural, food and rural development policies thereafter. Today, the challenges are probably even greater, but certainly more diverse as we are expecting far many more sustainable functions to be achieved from our food and rural systems, not least meeting climate change (net-zero) targets, reducing food poverty, increasing dietary health and restoring ecological biodiversity. There is also, as we shall see here the structural question of restoring a vibrant farming sector.

I will focus here upon the domestic food, farming and the rural economy, and base this note upon my recent and continuing researches in these fields.[1]  I will raise ten key points which need addressing and prioritising in the NFS.

  1. Current effects of both Covid and Brexit have only heightened the need for a radical re-formulation of domestic state policy regarding the food system, farming and rural development. This is necessary to arrest and reverse structural weaknesses in the food, farming and rural economy. The multiple and interconnected problems are now well articulated in a series of recent reports[2]. I need not dwell on these in detail here as many of the issues have already been raised in this group’s earlier meetings. However, I want to focus here on the severe need to address domestic food, farming and rural development policies, especially since we have now ‘taken back control’ from the EU in these policy realms.
  2. We are currently in, in my opinion, a policy vacuum relating to these fields, despite the ‘bare-bones’ of a new Environmental Land Management System’ (ELMS) being gradually rolled out[3]. These proposals alone, in my view, will not go far or be comprehensive enough to tackle the structural problems the rural and farming domain faces. They may turn out to be a valuable part of the mix, but they are too restricted on the necessary restoration of land-based environmental goods and services.
  3. Here we need to address both supply, demand, and particularly infrastructural factors affecting sustainable food, farming and rural development.
  4. If nothing is proactively done in these fields the UK will further experience, inter alia, the following reductions in its economic resilience; involving: (i) further concentration and oligopolisation of markets and food firms upstream and downstream from the farm sector; (ii) the continuing fall out and amalgamation of farm holdings and the continued decline in viability of small and medium family farms; (iii) the further outward mobility of the young from rural communities and labour markets; (iv) further reductions in the capability of the UK to be more self-sufficient in its production, and capable of feeding its growing urban populations with high quality foodstuffs. In addition, with pressure to convert more land for housing (300,000 per yr target giving 3 Million in the next decade, estimated to need 600,000 acres of agricultural land)[4], there will be intensive pressure on the agricultural land base. As the UK Climate change Committee recently reported (2020 Land Use: Policies for a net zero UK Jan 2020): ‘The way land is used must change to meet the UK’s net zero target. The current approach is not sustainable. Fundamental change in the use of land across the UK is needed to maintain a strong agricultural sector that also delivers climate mitigation, adaptation and wider environmental objectives’.
  5. All of this suggests the need for a new ‘Scott-type’ strategic approach to the rural and farming economy which addresses the priority for the UK to produce more of its own high quality and nutritional foods for its population.[5] Targets need to be set to enhance national and indeed regional self-sufficiency of its foods, to re-create local and regional supply chains, and to use new innovative public procurement policies to create more sustainable and nested markets. Covid has re-enforced the need to supply growing amounts of re-localised food to consumers through a variety of new retail and food outlets, using digital communications. These new short-chains need to develop a larger share of the total retail market and be more available on the high street.
  6. Similarly farmers will need to be incentivised to participate in these re-localised markets, and to diversify their food offer by adopting a variety of more agro-ecological practices. We need to embrace the ‘circular-economy’ in farming for sustainable food, and expand it as a mainstream activity. So far ELMS is too restrictive in this regard as it tends to ignore farmers market relations. I would propose that any further government funding for the farm population should be conditional upon farmers’ plans to adopt agro-ecological practices as well as to deliver ‘non-market’ public goods.
  7. As in the 1940s and 50s, government needs to take the lead in promoting and supporting these transitions; then an army of agricultural committees, a public farm advisory and extension service, and a wide geographical spread of ‘experimental husbandry’ farms were established so that farmers could share and learn good practice. This infrastructure no longer exists, yet it is again much needed in the new transitions the UK public now require from its farming and rural communities.
  8. All of this suggests a strong emphasis upon building and supporting rural and food- based infrastructures, not just in a physical sense, like creating new food hubs and wholesale outlets in both rural and urban communities, or in further developing broadband access. It also requires, market promotion, local branding and more skills training for young people. This is no more such a priority than in the horticultural sector – a sector which must now deliver and expand its UK production and supply base, with new targets for growth.
  9. In our recent WWF Cymru report we set out many of these areas of policy priority: Agro-ecological farming, and skills development, horticultural expansion of land area and markets, local food procurement, fostering food cooperatives and digital markets, enhancing and monitoring nutritional dietary guidelines, quality food standards, and promoting local and regional food cultures and cuisines.[6]
  10. All of the above priorities are indeed ways in which, our research shows, significant economic as well as ecological ‘added value’ and economic and ecological productivity gains can be achieved both in individual farm and food businesses as well as for rural development more generally. Food and farming, in this new era should no longer thus be seen as a ‘declining economy’. This notion should be reversed. Rather it should be positioned by the national government as a leading and vital sector for national wellbeing and restoring the Nation’s Public and Ecological Health.[7]


*  Terry Marsden is Emeritus Professor of Environmental Policy and Planning at Cardiff University, and is currently involved in longitudinal research on rural and farming matters in England and Wales.  The above forms the basis of a presentation given by Prof. Marsden to the APPG National Food Strategy and is posted here with kind permission.


[1] See Marsden, T.K (2017) Agri-food and rural development: sustainable place-making. Bloomsbury, London. Marsden, T.K, Lamine, C and Schneider, S (2020) A Research Agenda for Global Rural Development. Edward Elgar, Cheltenham UK.

[2] See for instance, The Lancet Commission’s recent report on food, diet and health, and The Food and Farming Commission UK reports 2019, 2020.

[3] There are of course different variants of these schemes being formulated in the devolved nations.

[4] See Central Association of Agricultural Valuers (March 2021) ‘Future Rural Land Used in the United Kingdom: A review of pressures and opportunities. CAAV Publication, NO 246.

[5] This will not only enhance the domestic farm sector and rural economy, it can also reduce global food miles and the externalisation of ecological costs and damage on sourcing regions.

[6] See A Welsh Food System for Future Generations: A report by the Sustainable Places Research Institute for WWF Cymru, Cardiff University.

[7] See the extensive analysis of the economic and labour productivity gains created with agro-ecological practices across European countries in : van der Ploeg, J,D et al (2019)The economic potential of agro-ecology: empirical evidence from Europe. Journal of Rural Studies, 71, 46-61.

Experiences of going out to eat


By Tim Wilkinson

The Covid road map is very date based. 12 April. 17th May. 21st June. It doesn’t say anything about how those changes might be experienced. In this short piece, I look at the experience of a business owner and at my own experience of going out to eat in the last month.

The reopening of indoor service on the 17th May has been long awaited for by many food businesses. From the customer point of view the rules are fairly simple – something you couldn’t do, now you can! Of course, there are various caveats: indoor eating is restricted to groups of 6 of up to 2 households, and wearing masks when moving around the indoor space is compulsory. An article in Big Hospitality gives more details from a business perspective, for instance on staff mask wearing, groups outdoors and track and trace. Reopening of indoor service has also been met by increased customer demand compared to pre-Covid; The Guardian reported, for example, surging reservations, spend and business revenue compared to the same week in 2019.

Behind the positives of the headlines has been a huge amount of hard work to ready hospitality for reopening. I came across Linda Anderson’s blog this month; which gives a fascinating insight into the journey of The Kitchen Croxley, a café and cake business in Rickmansworth over the last 18 months. The blog records and describes the numerous logistical and practical adaptations that The Kitchen Croxley has made including: pivoting to takeaway, expanding the takeaway offer and developing systems to manage social distancing across different lockdowns. But on top of that, what comes through is the lived experience of making those changes. Reading Linda Anderson’s blogs I got a sense of the energy it takes to run a small food business. There is the mental effort of checking government and industry guidance, the physical exertion of reorganising furniture and cleaning, and the emotional labour of trying to provide a familiar service to customers when so much has changed (e.g. the rising prices of supplies, new staff, new menu items). I thoroughly recommend tracking back through Linda’s blogs: they are a tremendous record of the ongoing adaptations and challenges faced by small business owners in food service industry.

For me, as a pre-Covid customer of cafés and restaurants, I must admit that I’m finding the lockdown mentality a difficult habit to break. Part of me wants to go out to eat but part of me doesn’t. I think it is mainly resistance to doing something I haven’t done for a while. Food critic and broadcaster Grace Dent wrote a tongue in cheek reminder about how to behave in a restaurant in A restaurant refresher course for anyone, like me, who might be struggling to get their head around it again. It has been a while! But I have been to eat out (in a restaurant, outside) and for a coffee (in a café, inside).

On the first May bank holiday, I went to a restaurant for a meal outdoors. The track and trace check-in was part of a cheery welcome and outlining of the rules and one-way system. I found it helpful to get that out of the way so that you weren’t wondering what to do once you were in the restaurant garden. I enjoyed the ‘small’ things like the staff coming to ask ‘is your food okay?’. That was great. As was the background noise of conversation from socially distanced tables – there was something familiar and warming in that. Unfortunately, the food did get cold in the wind though, and so did I. There was no inside option at this point and the restaurant doesn’t control the weather, so we made the best of it with blankets and coats.

Later in May, I met a friend at large café for a coffee indoors. There was a long-ish queue for the tills – it looked like track and trace was taking time to complete – with those taking orders also dealing with technical and check-in issues. The wait gave me a while to get my head around the scene beyond the tills – of perhaps 60 mask-less people eating and drinking indoors. Very novel! I felt for the staff who pre-Covid might have been focused on food service, but were now having to be app experts and explain Covid rules to anxious or confused customers. Once we’d got our hot drinks, we walked through into the hall-like cafeteria. It was noisy – not unpleasantly so, I think I had just forgotten how loud a room full of people with teaspoons and forks can be!

All this reminded me that going out for food is an experience – it’s not just about the food, but the atmosphere and being around other people. As a consumer, it is easy to forget the experience of business owners, staff and other customers – for everyone this is new phase. It’s not a return to ‘normal’, but a new encounter that comes with many thoughts and feelings about how it was before Covid, and how it should be now. We can expect to be pleasantly surprised, but there is a continued need for understanding as new processes are developed and refined. It would be easy to forget the last year, and the challenges that hospitality businesses have faced.