TWO THIRDS OF BRITONS FEAR IMPACT OF SECOND WAVE OF COVID-19 ON UK FOOD SUPPLIES
High numbers also worried food and farming will be hit by climate change or Brexit
22nd September 2020 – More than two thirds (66%) of British adults are worried about the impact that a second wave of COVID-19 would have on UK food supplies, a new YouGov survey has shown. Fears for the food system’s resilience in the face of disruption from climate change and trade interruptions after the Brexit transition period ends are also playing on public consciousness, highlighting a growing desire to future-proof the UK’s food system.
Although UK food supplies have stabilised since the early days of the pandemic, when scenes of panic buying and empty supermarket shelves were commonplace, the crisis has left people sensitised to the issue, showing an increased anxiety about there being sufficient availability of fresh food in the UK.
Whereas only 7% were worried this time last year, nearly five times that number (34%) are now concerned what the next decade will bring, and less than half (48%) are confident that the food and farming system is prepared for a second wave of Covid-19 or a future pandemic. Only 6% of people now say they are very confident, according to the results of the survey of over 2,000 adults, carried out on behalf of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (abc). One in three (32%) are more worried about the availability of fresh food in the UK now or in the next year, compared to the views of food security in other countries.
Public fears about the security of the UK food supply are not limited to the effects of coronavirus, in the context of the ever-growing challenge to produce high-quality, affordable food whilst boosting productivity and competing with foreign imports. Two thirds expressed fears about the consequences of climate change and climate events such as drought, amidst another British summer with soaring temperatures. Only 32% are confident that the food and farming system is prepared for environmental extremes such as extreme heat or flooding, and only 34% confident that we are prepared for biological threats such as new pests.
Additionally, repeat assurances that the UK will secure favourable trade deals with Europe and United States after the transition period ends appear to have fallen on deaf ears, with only three in 10 adults (32%) believing that the UK’s food and farming system is prepared for trade interruptions or problems with either the US or EU. Only 5% were very confident the food system is resilient enough to tackle this. A third of people also raised fears for the impact of interruptions such as bans on types of seeds available to farmers, or restrictions on the use of crop protection chemicals.
There is no doubt British farmers and food producers played an integral role in keeping the nation fed during the pandemic, acting quickly to ensure food was available. However, the research reveals a fundamental disconnect between producers and consumers, with more than half of adults (53%) not informed about the way fresh fruit, vegetables, or dairy reach the UK’s supermarkets, market stalls or restaurants. Interestingly, the public does show awareness of some of the agricultural sector’s dependence on a migrant workforce, with 53% expressing concern about the effects of labour shortages on UK farming.
Notably, the data suggests the public thinks more should be done to support farmers and food producers to future-proof the sector and help it remain resilient in the face of future disruptions. In particular, more than half (52) expressed support for the use of new agricultural innovations such as new plant breeding techniques like gene editing to make crops more nutritious and resistant to pests and diseases.
This follows the recent Government commitment to hold a consultation on the future regulation of plant breeding techniques this autumn[i]. Scientists and farmers are clear that the use of gene editing in the UK post Brexit could help UK farming flourish[ii], whilst maintaining the highest levels of consumer safety and environmental protection. A report commissioned by abc and released in February[iii], examined a number of global regulatory systems, finding that modelling UK regulation on a science-based system post-Brexit, rather than remaining aligned with Brussels, would help UK food and farming thrive.
The research shows that support for innovation to build a resilient food and farming sector is particularly prevalent amongst millennials[iv], with 61% saying they’d support embracing these innovations. This affirms previous research carried out by abc, which found that 4 in 10 (37%) UK adults are supportive of changes to their diet to mitigate challenges to UK food production, such as increased consumption of insects, with support rising to 48% within the 18-24 year old age group[v].
YouGov also asked about support for other interventions to help improve British farming for future demand. A third said they would support intensification of farming (e.g. more use of green houses and polytunnels) while 27% backed restriction of food exports from Britain. Nearly two thirds would welcome people being encouraged to consume a greater proportion of seasonal produce.
Mark Buckingham, Chair of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council said: ‘UK farmers have helped the country through some of its most challenging times the last few months, keeping us all well fed and maintaining a supply of healthy, good-quality and affordable fresh produce. However, other challenges are on the horizon, ranging from a second wave of coronavirus or the UK’s departure from the EU. Furthermore, the impact of climate change and environmental extremes in the short term pose a serious threat to harvests, as indicated by recent reports[vi]. Therefore, these results demonstrate a clear need to provide farmers with the opportunity to access all the tools available to them. Our farmers need the same access to new technologies such as gene editing that their counterparts do in countries like Australia and Canada, to help UK food production remain resilient and sustainable. We welcome the recent confirmation from Government for a consultation on the future regulation of precision plant breeding techniques, and the recognition that Brexit provides an opportunity to take advantage of innovative new technologies that have previously been held back by EU decisions.’
Paul Temple, farmer and Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board Member said: ‘This year’s weather has produced the worst wheat harvest for decades and we need more than ever new breeding solutions to provide the resilience to changing climate, pests and diseases. At the same time the pandemic has highlighted how important a secure food and farming system is to this country. That’s why we need to ensure we are protecting it and strengthening it for the future. The UK has some superb research being carried out and a fantastic opportunity to lead in Europe with new breeding techniques that will safe guard food production against the increasing threats farmers face’
Agricultural Biotechnology Council (abc):
- abc is the umbrella organisation for the agricultural biotechnology industry in the UK.
- abc works with the food chain and research community to invest in a broad range of crop technologies – including conventional and advanced breeding techniques, such as Gene Editing and GM.
- These are designed to promote the sustainable intensification of agriculture by tackling challenges such as pests, diseases and changing climatic conditions, whilst reducing water usage, greenhouse gas emissions and other inputs.
The member companies are BASF, Bayer, Corteva and Syngenta.