COVID-19: Food and Nutrition Security during and after the COVID-19 Pandemic

Lead Research Organisation: James Hutton Institute
Department Name: Information & Computational Sciences


The COVID-19 pandemic is having substantial consequences on UK and global food and nutrition security (FNS). This project will undertake world-leading research to provide government, business and decision makers with the evidence that they need to develop a robust FNS response to the current pandemic.
The pandemic is causing major shocks to the four pillars of FNS: access; availability; utilisation and stability. Examples include reductions in productivity (labour limitations), breakdown of norms of food systems (distribution, changed demand) and supply chain restrictions (e.g. shortages of agri-chemicals for crop management). Economic impacts are altering both supply, distribution and demand. Collectively these shocks are substantially altering food systems whilst in the longer-term normal processes of trade may not adapt appropriately leading to changes in the balance of traded commodities, reduction in food reserves and price increases.

The issue of FNS is relevant to all members of society, particularly for those most vulnerable to shortages or price increases. The food sector is also a major part of the UK economy, as it contributes approximately £111 billion a year and accounts for over 13% of national employment. It is the UK's largest manufacturing sector.

The project focusses on UK FNS which is heavily dependent on global markets. Nearly half of the food we consume is imported and UK livestock industries rely heavily on imported feed. Some countries have already restricted exports in order to supply home markets. Normal market forces, transportation and distribution networks may no longer be appropriate to provide national requirements. A priority is to understand how to increase capacity for self-reliance to maintain civic stability, a healthy population and to understand the ramifications for third countries. The aim of this study is to conduct an initial rapid FNS risk assessment and explore options for changes in agricultural production, trade and distribution to protect FNS without jeopardising wider ecological and climate goals.

The Research Programme will deliver seven key outputs:
1. Report on rapid risk assessment of the global food system considering how direct and indirect COVID-19 impacts and responses are propagating risks to food and nutrition security.
2. Report on Rapid risk assessment of UK food system responses and vulnerabilities and consequences on access, availability, utilisation and stability.
3. A set of plausible scenarios to explore the cascading risks and consequences of pandemic impacts on food sand nutrition security.
4. Report on alternative land use and management options that will increase resilience.
5. Report and maps of the spatial assessment of the alternative land use and management options.
6. Report including infographics reviewing lessons learned from the pandemic to improve Food and Nutrition Security.
7. Two workshops and other dissemination events and report with recommendations.

The knowledge and foresight generated will be applicable to and of value across multiple sectors of the economy. It will inform policy support and development within UK and devolved Governments and help industry and business make informed decisions and plan adaptations. Information generated will support the UK's strong position in global trade. Identifying data gaps now will enable improved monitoring of impacts, both at UK and global scales.
Description This research has assessed the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the UK's food and nutrition security. Four key elements, referred to as the Four Pillars of food and nutrition security are considered: the availability of food, the ability to acquire it in terms of economic and physical access, food utilisation and the stability of these three elements.
• The food system has been resilient to the pandemic shock in that it has maintained food availability and prices have remained relatively stable.
• The pandemic has highlighted the existing flaws in the food system, particularly the inequalities in economic and physical access by those on low incomes.
• In respect of the four pillars of food security, economic access due to reduced or lost income has been the key driver of increased food insecurity, exacerbating already large inequalities:
o Availability: Food production levels, reserves and food system supply chain infrastructure have so far remained stable and able to meet demand. Most key food types have remained available.
o Access:
• Economic access: People already on low incomes and those who have experienced loss of income have experienced severe economic and physical access difficulties.
? This has been more evident in later waves of the pandemic has economic impacts have worsened.
? Foodbanks increased activities and allowed physical and economic access for vulnerable people and large numbers of new users, but are not able to meet all needs. A lack of coordination, lack of contingency plans and a lack of proactive (rather than reactive) responses from Government was largely balanced by civil society activities.
? Food prices remained relatively stable after an initial increase on groceries inflation after March 2020. However, indications are that UK global prices are increasing (March 2021)
• Physical access: difficulties due to the need for social distancing and movement restrictions have meant the most vulnerable, particularly those with illnesses and disabilities have experienced greater difficulties in accessing food and nutrition.
o Utilization: food purchase, preparation and consumption behaviors have changed during the pandemic: evidence indicates both improvement in diet in some parts of society, but a deterioration in others, particularly those already on poor quality diets.
• Significant changes during Covid-19 were reported in where and how people prepared and ate food and in the types of food eaten.
• The restrictions on hospitality meant a large shift to more home consumption and less consumption away from home, and with substantial impacts on supply chains.
• Significantly more people became anxious about having enough food to meet their needs during Covid-19.
o Stability: The immediate prospects for continued stable availability are reasonable, but there are increasing risks from lack of economic access for low-income people.
• The duration of a shock is a key aspect of the threat to stability: at the time of writing 13 months had elapsed since the start of the pandemic and availability of food has remained stable. However, continued duration and the risk of additional shocks (i.e. due to climate impacts) will exacerbate an already stressed food system.
• Primary production in the UK experienced a substantial 2020 decrease in yield due to exceptional weather conditions (wettest February, sunniest May and dry spring, Storms Ciara, Dennis and Jorge resulting in flooding).
• Has the UK become food insecure?
o Our assessment is that as whole the UK has not been food insecure during the pandemic, however a substantial segment of the population have experienced food and nutrition insecurity, primarily through loss of income restricting economic access to food.
• The pandemic has exacerbated an already large inequality in food and nutrition security and diet quality within the UK, risking the development of a two-tier food system and further increasing inequalities.
o There have also been inequalities in impact in respect of the scale, type and location of food businesses, with local supermarkets, on-line and take-away businesses experiencing business gains whilst city-centre, shopping centre and eat-in businesses having losses.
• Disruption caused severe impacts on some food businesses and their processes, operations and financial viability, but not to the extent to risk severe national food and nutrition insecurity:
o Disruptions to the food system in the first wave of the pandemic were primarily due to changes in demand and, readjustment of logistics within the supply chain.
o There have been large variations in impacts between different food producers and sectors within the food system.
o Primary production experienced disruptions due to labour availability limitations.
o Initial price inflation occurred due to reductions in retail discounts.
• Supply chains:
o The transport and logistics sector was able to adapt to enable continued functioning of the supply chains, despite severe labour restrictions.
o There was a shortage of warehousing space due to an imbalance between outbound non-essential goods slowing or stopping, whilst inbound flows from imports to the UK continued.
o Significant changes in purchasing behaviour during Covid-19 compared with before included ways in which people obtained food, sources of buying food, frequency and types of food purchased.
o Shortening supply chain connecting local producers to local consumers was facilitated by civil society activities, helping to alleviate some pressures.
• There are indications of sustained food prices increasing globally, which coupled with economic downturn, will exacerbate existing inequalities between being food secure and insecure, both in the UK and globally.
o Those people already experiencing food and nutrition insecurity in the UK due to economic access difficulties are likely to be even more at risk if prices continue to increase relative to income support.
• Differences in vaccination rates between countries and emerging new coronavirus variants may mean a potential phase of further COVID-19 waves in countries exporting food to the UK, which may increase shortages and exacerbate food price increases.
• The global food system has thus far been able to adapt to the pandemic, but care is needed to avoid entrenchment in a system that is not resilient to the long-term threats from climate change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation.

The project has produced a Final Report summarising the the outputs from the different streams of research undertaken.
The key message from this research, in light of lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, is the need for preparation and contingency planning with national food system strategies and internationally agreed measures to protect food and nutrition security. Fundamentally, prevention, in the form of reducing climate risks through deep and rapid mitigation and well-resourced support for adaptation in the food system, integrated with the reversal of environmental damage through the use of sustainable production methods and ecosystem restoration will help progress towards protecting food and nutrition security against future risks.

The key findings are:

Concerns at the start of the pandemic of very severe impacts on the food system and consequences on the UK's food and nutritional security, in respect of production losses causing shortages and rapid increase in prices, did not materialise.
Based on the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation's definitions, the UK did not become food insecure during the pandemic, however, economic and physical access difficulties by those on low incomes and reduced mobility meant increased hardship and increased occurence of food and nutrition insecurity.
Food and nutrition insecurity grew in the UK during the pandemic. The impacts highlighted and exacerbated existing food and nutrition security inequalities in the UK and globally.The percentage of food insecure adults was 7.6% pre-COVID, rising to 9.7% at the start of the pandemic, increasing further to 9.9% in the period February to July 2021, affecting 5.2 million adults (The Food Foundation).
In 2020 and early 2021 the COVID-19 pandemic primarily caused a demand-side economic shock to the food system, both in the UK and globally, with a disproportionately larger economic and physical access impact on vulnerable groups, leading to an increase in food poverty rather than a supply-side production shock resulting in empty supermarket shelves.
Food system logistics globally continued to function adequately during the pandemic disruptions, but the limits of its resilience to plausible future threats were exposed.
International trade of food broadly remained effective despite some regions having been affected by supply-chain constraints and some markets by significant shortages and price rises.
UK food prices have remained relatively stable. Prices rose during the first national lockdown but fell for much of the rest of 2020, but in 2021 UK prices have risen steadily, reflecting global trends, which have been increasing consistently since May 2020 despite generally plentiful food supplies. Globally, prices are likely to increase in 2022 due to rising inputs costs, particularly for energy.
The food system as it currently operates is subject to market forces that do not fully account for the costs to society of poor health outcomes due to poor diet and utilisation, nor environmental damage from unsustainable production practices. The implication is that we do not value human and environmental health outcomes appropriately in the economics of the food system.
The food system accounts for c. 34% of global greenhouse gas emissions.In 2015, food-system emissions amounted to 18 Gt CO2 equivalent per year globally, representing 34% of total GHG emissions. The largest contribution came from agriculture and land use/land-use change activities (71%), with the remaining were from supply chain activities: retail, transport, consumption, fuel production, waste management, industrial processes and packaging (Crippa et al 2021).
There is a risk that the limited impact of the pandemic on the food system could lead to complacency through the misleading conclusion that the system is resilient. This potentially endangers the effective transformation that is required to increase food and nutrition security and tackle the climate emergency.
Future climate and environmental degradation shocks are likely to affect production rather than demand, with subsequent food shortages leading to increased economic access difficulties for those on low incomes.
There are important trade-offs between land use and food production in the UK in response to drives to increased self-reliance, the ability to increase agricultural yields, and plans to increase tree cover, bioenergy crops, or bespoke biodiversity areas on farms (see Deliverable 5 report link below). Increasing the level of food imports creates greater flexibility for UK land use decisions and was associated with positive impacts on UK soil functions. Conversely, a reduction in net imports reduces the availability of UK agricultural land for other purposes (e.g. woodland creation, biodiversity and protected area status)
Soil function indicators mapping has highlighted how land use changes under different future scenarios either positively or negatively impact key environmental benefits supported by soil (carbon storage, primary productivity, water supply, nutrient availability and pollination).
There are good opportunities to align production of food groups for healthy diets. Moving from current to the recommended patterns in the Eatwell Guide requires more energy to be derived from carbohydrate and protein, and less from fat. The proportion of simple sugars in consumed carbohydrates should be halved, salt consumption should be reduced, and fibre consumption increased.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a "K" response in the consumption of healthier food: some people have healthier diets; many people have had a less healthy diet. Because unhealthy food is typically cheaper than healthy food, financial insecurity leads to less healthy diets.
There are risks and opportunities of aligning food production to demand. To increase production to match demand more closely for those commodities already produced in the UK, while at the same time adjusting to aligned production with diets that are healthier for humans and the environment, will have consequences for land use, farm inputs, and income.
There are positive impacts of adopting agroecological farm practices. Sustainable production of food in the UK requires a transition to agroecological practices where the farmed environment is managed for provision of multiple benefits in terms of both crop production and the environment.
There are large opportunities to increase UK protein production. While the UKs food system is legume-dependent, these are not home-grown, Consequently, and in addition to the risks of import dependency, the environmental benefits of home-grown legumes are forfeited. More investment in legume grain processing capacities nationally would also help achieve the commercial of legumes for human consumption. There is real opportunity to realise more agroecologically-balanced agriculture using legumes for their multifunctional and complex provisions, including the replacement of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers and enhancement of essential soil functions.
There is increasing potential for the use of new technologies, such as Controlled Environment Agriculture and precision agriculture.

Based on these findings, the report goes on to raise some key questions and provide responses:

Will the pandemic drive change? A fundamental question becomes "has the pandemic been a sufficiently impactful event large enough to drive change in the food system?". Our conclusion is that it has not, on the basis that supply was maintained. The pandemic has primarily caused a demand-side shock, not a supply-side one.

A second following key question thus needs to be asked: "Do we have a false sense of national food and nutrition security?". There is a substantial risk that the overall conclusion drawn to the first question is that the current structure of the food system is resilient because it maintained supply and that a sufficiently large enough majority of businesses remained financially viable (indeed for some, profits increased). This risks development of a false sense of security and over-confidence in the ability of the food system to cope with future sporadic, multi-faceted and geographically diverse production-based shocks which may have unpredictable cascading consequences through food price rise impacts and differences in geopolitical responses.

Lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst the pandemic has affected everyone, it has had differentiated impacts on society and economic sectors. This has been termed the "K" response. In respect of learning from this experience and developing strategies for improving food and nutrition security, in the UK and globally, the key lessons include:

Prevention is better than cure: the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board estimates the pandemic response costs so far at $11 trillion, with a future loss of $10 trillion in earnings, whereas preparing for a pandemic would have cost the world $5 per person.
Potential negative effects of the pandemic have been avoided by food trade between countries remaining relatively stable. There is a need to maintain international trade and not impose export restrictions, to maintain the flow of food and materials to enable its production.
It is essential to maintain supply-side capabilities when the demand-side is impacted by economic access difficulties, otherwise production shortages will drive price rises compounding economic hardship.
The pandemic impacted already vulnerable people the most, particularly those on low incomes, women and some ethnic groups who saw further reductions, or those who lost their income source, for example, those excluded from the furlough scheme. Government supports schemes helped alleviate the worst of the impacts by reducing economic access issues and hence food and nutrition insecurity, but there remained a heavy reliance on the third sector to provide additional support.
Policies and financial support can respond at scale and speed when necessary.
Governmental responses to the pandemic stress-tested the reliability of the global food system, revealing the potential for supply disruptions to global trade as border friction increased. In the UK, Brexit compounded border friction in our busiest trade routes. The complexity of the interactions in the system made predictions extremely challenging.
The need for preparation: To develop a food system that will better cope with future production shocks due to climate change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation and improve resilience for food and nutrition security, the primary lesson from the pandemic is that prevention is better than cure, and that preparation and contingency planning can reduce the severity of impacts.

The food system has not been stress-tested by the pandemic. The primary stress on the food system during the pandemic was a demand-side shock. However, climate change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation are likely to cause supply-side shocks, for which the food system has not yet been stress tested.

An opportunity to reflect and adapt. The pandemic is an opportunity to pause and reflect on what society wants from the way our economies are structured and organised. A key part of this is how we build a safe and resilient food system that ends hunger and malnutrition, is equitable, economically viable and improves human and environmental health. Given the scale of transformation needed to achieve these multiple objectives, it is essential to establish fora through which a diversity of stakeholders can voice their experience and concerns, to enable meaningful dialogue on developing solutions. This necessitates the opportunity to challenge the power relations in the food system and develop a shared vision of what a sustainable, resilient and equitable food system looks like and how this can be achieved.

Looking Forward: The Decade of Change. The United Nations has described this as the Decade of Change in recognition of the challenges society faces in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals in the face of the climate, biodiversity and ecological health crises. At the core of the SDGs is the need to end hunger and achieve food and nutrition security for all people. The actions needed to meet these challenges must be rapid and at scale: reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately; adopt sustainable environmentally beneficial food production practices; restore degraded ecosystems; align land and marine use for food production, processing and retail with healthy diets; develop safety nets to protect the most vulnerable when shocks occur; internalise the human and environmental costs within the food system.
Exploitation Route The research has shown that whilst the global and UK food system has been able to function and maintain food availability, it has highlighted the disparities between those who are food secure and those that are food insecure. The research findings, in additional to the known flaws in the food system, help illustrate the need for a whole food systems research approach so that lessons learned from the impacts of the pandemic can be developed and utilised to reduce risks from climate change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation. There is a real risk that the ability of the food system to continue functioning during the pandemic is seen as sign of resilience, but this would ignore longer-terms threats. The pandemic is an opportunity to fundamentally reassess the food system so that it can maintain it's ability to function under pandemic type shocks and yet also readjust so as to achieve social equality and environmental sustainability.
The findings may be used by research planning, industry and policy development stakeholders to:
• Use the lessons learned from the pandemic impacts to help identify areas within the food system where there are opportunities to realign to a holistic interpretation of resilience.
• Use the findings to explore how those that face food insecurity in the UK can be better supported.
• Integrate with other research, particularly that looking at the true social and environmental costs of the food system and the multiple objectives for land use and management, to help structure future research strategies on why the food system needs to adapt and how this might be achieved.
• Assess options for producing food in the UK to reduce dependencies on imports and cuts total greenhouse gas emissions.
• Use the scenario planning outputs (potential food system scenarios to 2030) to explore how the food system may evolve under a range of different policy, economic and environmental drivers.
• The pandemic has highlighted who in society may be considered as essential workers, with this research indicating that future risks to food security requires that those in the food production and supply chain are likely to be essential and hence requiring additional support.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Retail

Description The Project PI, Dr Mike Rivington, was invited to present evidence to the Scottish Government Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee scrutiny of the draft Good Food Nation Bill. Findings from the study and lessons learned from the pandemic in respect of food security were presented and utilised in formulate responses to Committee members' questions. The PI was invited by ESRC and Government Social Research, Government Analysis and Policy Profession to present findings to the Actionable Insights seminar series, to multiple Government departments.
First Year Of Impact 2022
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Evidence provided on the draft Good Food Nation Bill to the Scottish Government Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Contribution to a national consultation/review
Description Presentation to UK Government Analysis Function and Policy Profession, invited by the ESRC and Government Social Research Actionable Insights seminar series (multiple Government Departments)
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Contribution to new or Improved professional practice
Description Invited presentation to UK Government: ESRC / GRS Actionale Insights seminar series to Government Analysis and Policy Profession, multiple Departments. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact The Project PI (Dr Mike Rivington) was invited give a presentation by the ESRC and Government Social Research for the Government Analysis Function and Policy Profession. The presentation was titled: "UK food and nutrition security during and after the COVID-19 pandemic: Lessons learned for future environmental risks and opportunities" and presented a set of Actionable Insights for transformation of the food system to address climate change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation issues.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description Providing evidence to the Scottish Government Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee scrutiny of the draft Good Food Nation Bill 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact The Project PI was invited by the Scottish Government Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee to give evidence based on the Project findings as part of the Committee's scrutiny of the draft Good Food Nation Bill (Stage 1). The event was recorded and available online and the transcript published (Official Report: Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee. Wednesday 2 February 2022 Session 6.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022