Vittles 6.6 - Supply Chains

Is Eating Locally and Seasonally The Answer?, by Devak Mehta

I don’t know about you, but I think I’ve heard the words ‘supply chain’ uttered more times over the last month than I have in the last few years. The first sentence of Devak Mehta’s newsletter today handily sums it up: supply chains are invisible to the public when they’re working properly, but put them under stress and you’ll soon start to hear about them. The supply chains are under stress right now - the supply of all the imported produce that is flown over to supplement the small amount of home grown stuff that makes it to the shops; the vegetables that are seasonal somewhere else that mask that they are not seasonal here; the beautiful aged meat and day boat fish that would have been destined for a restaurant but now languishes somewhere in Cornwall without the conduit to get that produce into our mouths. So yes, the supply chains are under stress, but perhaps they needed to be for us to finally talk about them - they’re increasingly fragile, confusingly labyrinthine, and more importantly, they don’t work for everybody.

We crave easy answers and there are many who will say the answer is to eat seasonally and eat locally. Over the last month I’ve more or less lived this idyllic life - my front yard has become a delivery point for NamaYasai vegetables picked that morning in East Sussex; I walk to The Butchery every Friday and pick up one wine-dark tranche of meat, a hogget chop or an on-the-bone sirloin that I know has been treated well and tastes so much of itself, of its place and diet and an indolent life, that almost nothing needs to be done to it except apply fire; every Sunday, an hour and a half round trip to the fishmongers to pick up mackerel and mullet of such rigidity you start to question your previous definition of freshness. Having lived this life I can tell you the immediate and obvious problem: it takes a long time to do and it’s fucking expensive. I don’t need to tell you where I was last weekend when I bumped into a well-known chef and we lamented that we had just spent £8 on a punnet of strawberries - we, who both know and value the price of good produce.

Telling people to eat seasonally is pointless unless those seasonal vegetables are available at all price points, unless people are given back the knowledge (which used to be in the public domain, not just a handful of middle class foodies) about what is seasonal and given education on how to make those things go further. Telling people to eat locally is useless unless we are producing enough local food to be able to feed everyone. Telling people to shop locally instead of at supermarkets is a pipe dream when all of our small markets are being gentrified out of existence, and when people do not have time to spend that little bit extra going from shop to shop.

There are answers but they are not easy ones. They will require sea changes in the way we feed ourselves. Professor Tim Lang’s book Feeding Britain lays out a kind of manifesto for how this might work: the answer is a structural overhaul and a food system that puts power in the hands of producers rather than supermarkets, that gives those on lower incomes more agency on how they can feed themselves. This will require state intervention and years if not decades. But, as Devak will explain, there’s no better time to talk about it than now.

Is Eating Locally and Seasonally The Answer?, by Devak Mehta

A supply chain is a little bit like a car engine. You probably won’t notice it when it is working perfectly, but you’ll be acutely aware when it starts to break down. Over the past few weeks, you may have felt the effect of what happens when a supply chain is put under stress; supermarkets and small retailers have struggled to keep pace with the demand for flour, pasta and some dairy products. There are a number of reasons why, and not all of them have to do with shortage of available food – BBC Radio 4 recently reported that the lack of eggs was actually partly due to a shortage of egg cartons. In particular, COVID-19 poses a severe challenge to ‘just-in-time’ industries, such as fresh produce. Here, the UK suffers a huge trade deficit – in 2017, the value of our imported fruit and vegetables were worth between 20 to 25 times more than the value we exported. This makes us vulnerable to external market fluctuations: even small changes in currency valuations can fundamentally affect the price of imported goods. Our food supply is reliant on highly complex, highly globalised supply chains to which the novel coronavirus presents a perfect storm and, perhaps, an existential threat over the coming months. 

Let’s take the humble asparagus as our case-in-point. The UK asparagus season is short – normally lasting about 8 weeks – but demand is consistent throughout the year and a large proportion of our asparagus is imported from Peru or Mexico. In normal conditions, the crop is picked by hand and imported by air in the belly of passenger aircraft before importers then pack, label and send the produce to supermarket depots. Here it is triaged and delivered to individual supermarkets for consumption, about 4 to 5 days after harvest. All this before our supermarket workers can stack their shelves.

In this simplified description, we already have a complex web of inter-dependencies that fundamentally rely on people – crop-pickers in the farms; customs officials checking the produce; lorry drivers transporting asparagus between depots; packers feeding labelling machines with the produce; handlers doing the triage and, finally, supermarket workers. The unique challenges posed by COVID-19 threaten our supply chains because a disturbance at any point in this chain has repercussions for the rest.

How might these problems manifest themselves?

There are two key issues. 

In the first case, the large number of people involved in the supply chain makes it vulnerable to governmental policy decisions or an outbreak of the virus itself. The Economist recently reported that many Polish asparagus pickers have failed to show up to work on German farms, knowing that they will be quarantined upon returning home across the border. Likewise, the virus could bring the whole supply chain to an indefinite halt if it spreads within farms or distribution centres.

Secondly, the suspension of commercial flights has forced suppliers to find different modes of transportation for these goods – at a much higher price. Since the beginning of March, the price of airfreight has risen by up to 80% per kilo, with priority given to high-value goods (such as pharmaceuticals). The alternative – shipping by sea – takes 18 days and significantly reduces the shelf-life (and quality) of the product. The historically weak pound has exacerbated problems, making it far more expensive to import produce.

Who is paying the price for this? Currently, the burden is falling on the importers and the supermarkets, who are suffering lower margins – for now. That is unlikely to last. In the short-term, domestically-grown asparagus should go some way to mitigate rising costs by reducing the demand for imported produce. The season is just beginning and should continue until 10th June. This gives a two-month window where consumers will not necessarily feel the effects of supply-chain disruption.

The weeks following the end of the UK asparagus season will be a test – will the supermarkets be able to continue importing asparagus at elevated prices and maintain its price point? Will they soak up the price difference or prioritise profit margins and pass the burden onto the consumer? Keep your eyes peeled. 

This is just one example. Scaled up to include the 30,000 individual product lines that the average UK supermarket stocks, the scale of the challenge facing our industries becomes apparent. When you take this into account, the fact that our supermarkets are so well-stocked at the moment is perhaps more surprising than the lack of certain groceries. They are doing remarkably well - for now.  

Is there a solution to reduce our dependency on these international supply chains? 

Champions of local, seasonal eating might argue that this is the perfect opportunity to support small greengrocers and UK farms. In the short-term, at least, they are right. Come July, asparagus might be more expensive (or unavailable) in supermarkets – but so what? British peas and broad beans and berries and cherries will be at their peak sweetness and nutritional value (not to mention their fewer air miles). Surely we should be eating those foods instead?

The answer is not so simple. In the long term, this is not sustainable for the average consumer. British consumers like to have choice – we want to have our cake and eat it every day of the year. Berries and cherries might be at their best in summer, but we still buy them in autumn and winter. A.A. Gill once famously said: “The whole march of agrarian history has been a half-famished marathon to overcome the tyranny of the seasons. Seasonal eating actually means eating lettuce three times a day for a month and then not seeing it again for nine months.” He has a point. We rely on international supply chains because eating “seasonally” is less fun than it sounds.  

Eating locally is also expensive. Imported produce is more affordable because British agriculture cannot compete with significantly cheaper foreign labour – the minimum wage in Peru is six times lower than in the UK. When (if?) life resumes back to normality, we will be clawing our way out of the worst recession in living memory and high-value products (British asparagus; free range meat etc.) will be the first items docked off of consumer shopping lists – as we saw in the post-2008 financial crisis. The sad reality is that the butchers and greengrocers who are deservedly benefiting from a boom in business will likely be some of the first to suffer when restrictions are lifted. 

But the times they are a-changin’. A small number of farmers are redefining British agriculture. Good Earth Growers, based in Cornwall, supply Thai vegetables to Kiln in London and Mexican chillies to Carter’s of Moseley in Birmingham. Kent-based NamaYasai supplies Japanese produce (think yuzu, mitsuba) to a number of London restaurants, including Koya. Can we really call this “British” produce? That is a question for another article. The key thing is that these companies allow us to eat locally without having to eat seasonally, or at least the old definition of seasonally – they offer us variety and have the potential to reduce our dependence on imported produce. And with restaurants not operating, their route to market will be redirected straight to the consumer. 

For now, prices remain high – these are small-scale operations that supply individual, high-end restaurants. But this could soon change with the rapid growth of hydroponic technology and the huge investment currently being poured into agritech. In the UK, Ocado is leading the race to utilise vertical farming to increase the accessibility of local, fresh produce. Last year, it announced a £17 million investment into indoor farms in the UK, with the ambitious goal of incorporating them into its distribution centres to deliver produce to homes within an hour of harvesting. Currently the focus is on lettuce, micro-herbs and berries, but previous trials have been successful in farming eggplants, peppers, tomatoes and onions. In short, only a small technological jump is required to start growing the kind of speciality produce mentioned above. Hopefully, we could soon start to see more affordable, high-quality British produce on our shelves in the near future. 

In the short-term, more needs to be done to make high-quality fruit and vegetables accessible to low-income families, especially in cities where many people do not have recourse to gardens or allotments.  A study published in March by researchers at the University of Sheffield concluded that green spaces in their hometown had the potential to provide enough fresh produce for 122% of the city’s population. Even if only a quarter of this space was converted into allotments, the land use would be equal to the space used by commercialised agriculture per capita in the UK. That means, converting a quarter of urban green spaces would in effect double the area of horticultural land per capita in the UK. The implication is that better utilization of urban green spaces could contribute quite significantly to feeding our population.

A number of community projects are already capitalising on London’s green spaces. Urban Growth Learning Gardens is a social enterprise which creates community gardens and “edible living” spaces to improve access to home-grown fresh produce. Their operations are growing quickly – the value of crops harvested across Central London tripled between 2017-19. These kinds of community allotments are an exciting way forward because they give low-income families more autonomy over their food supplies and reduce the influence of economic pressures in shaping their diets. 

Urban Growth Learning Gardens and similar small projects are not going to revolutionise the nation’s food supply alone; they can offer us a short-term solution to these problems and could help to regenerate communities in the coming months. After the COVID-19 storm has blown over, the government and the food industry must work together to seriously consider how to make long-term structural changes to reduce our dependence on international supply chains and increase access to high-quality, local produce - not just for a small number of us, but for everyone.

Devak Mehta is a recent graduate who passionate about food. This is his first piece of published writing. Devak was paid for this newsletter.

The illustrations were done by Reena Makwana who was also paid for her work.