How Brexit and Covid are impacting UK sustainability efforts

22 October 2021, 08:27 AM
  • Brexit and Covid have each transformed the food industry in their own way. But what impact are they having on the industry’s move towards a more sustainable future?
How Brexit and Covid are impacting UK sustainability efforts

Covid-19 has had countless effects on British consumer habits, altering the way Brits work, shop and live. “It is hard to imagine something more disruptive than Covid when it comes to changes in consumer behaviour,” said Ben Black, head of European food and beverage at the investment firm Verlinvest

Covid has caused consumers’ priorities to shift. “Arguably, it is the most significant wholesale change in everyday life since the Second World War,” Ben said, “and therefore many of us are experiencing this degree of threat and vulnerability for the first time. It has made many aware of the fragility of our planet and everyday life, which is why sustainability has risen so quickly to the fore of consumer consciousness.”

A new outlook on food

Adele Jones, deputy CEO of the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT), agreed that the pandemic has had a significant impact on how consumers view the food industry. “Covid has re-connected people to their food. The outbreak has changed how people value food as an essential,” she said. “The pandemic encouraged more people to cook from scratch and throw away less. Due to the situation in the supermarkets, lots of people also tried veg box schemes or ordered food from a local farm for the first time. Not only does this show the resilience of local food systems, but also demonstrates a willingness from both the producers and consumers to engage with more sustainable practices and foods.”

What’s more, the pandemic encouraged consumers to see the impact of the food they eat – both on their own health and on the health of the planet. “Covid has also encouraged people to observe the link between leading healthy lifestyles and boosting immune system health,” Adele said. “If we understand what goes into the food we consume, we understand the system it is produced in, and we better understand our own health. Smaller, independent, local retailers can guarantee local, seasonal and organic foods with far fewer additives, much better for both human and planetary health.”

Indeed, the changes in consumer habits during the pandemic have given independent retailers a renewed sense of purpose, but will these outlive Covid? Ben believes they will. “First, because I expect ‘post-Covid’ will be a process rather than a distinct point in time, but mainly because in the last two years you have the coming-of-age of a more vocal group of younger consumers, who see this as irrefutable proof our planet is being negatively impacted by our actions more than ever, and a using it as a call-to-arms for accelerated change.”

Rewriting supply chains

Another of Covid’s most striking effects was its impact on supply chains. “The disruption of Covid to food supply chains has been incredibly significant – from availability of labour, trucking, certain raw materials – you name it,” Ben said.

The food and drink sector has been shown in no uncertain terms the importance of smaller food systems. “As the supermarket shelves emptied in a wave of panic buying and changing shopping habits, local farmers proved more reliable in a crisis than the industrial food supply chain,” Adele added. “A lesson learned from the crisis is that a supply chain which is reliant on a relatively small number of large factories to process and package food is a fragile one. Decentralised and localised systems are more resilient and adaptable in the face of disruption,” she said.

Ben said the lesson learned around supply chain resilience was one of two major impacts. “Disrupted supply-chains have put onshoring manufacturing firmly on the agenda, which tends to come with shorter logistics routes and generally lower emissions. This is positive from both a sustainability and a cost perspective in some cases.” 

The second impact is not as positive for sustainability efforts. “It has inflated input costs, squeezing margins almost universally, and therefore has forced leaders to make trade-offs in business models where sustainability adds an additional cost. This is one of the reasons that at Verlinvest we seek to embed sustainable practices into the business models we invest in as it means no trade-offs need to be made,” he said.

Brexit pros and cons

While Covid came out of the blue to reshape the food and drink sector, Brexit is a change in policy that’s been on the industry’s radar for years – but it, too, will have lasting impacts on the sector’s sustainability efforts.

“There are some potential adverse effects of Brexit on food security in the UK,” Adele said. “From delivery drivers to abattoir operatives to fruit pickers, Brexit has shown the extent to which we rely on migrant workers for the UK’s food system to function sustainably.”

The most recent example is the lack of skilled butchers in the UK, which is causing a so-called ‘pig pile-up’. “The chronic labour shortage has led to an estimated backlog of 85,000 pigs on farms, with an extra 15,000 being added per week. This is not sustainable or healthy for farms, animals, humans, or the planet.” However, these issues are not without sustainable solutions. “The SFT and Abattoir Sector Group launched a Campaign for Local Abattoirs to encourage upskilling of butchers in the UK and empowering small-scale abattoirs. This will enable local food systems to function more sustainably and improve UK self-sufficiency,” Adele said.

Ben agrees that more self-sufficiency is on the cards. “On one hand we see supply chains shortening as many companies target domestic manufacturing, which is generally positive for sustainability.” However, he added that “the increase in political, administrative and cultural hurdles post-Brexit, creates inefficiencies and reduces scope for trans-national cooperation, and economies of scale – which has the potential to fragment and dilute sustainability efforts”.

While there are certainly negatives that the industry must consider, Brexit also brings a chance for change. “Brexit offers an opportunity for us to re-shape the way our food system works,” Adele said. “Through new trade deals, we could ensure that for what can’t be produced in the UK, only the highest quality foods, with the highest welfare standards, are imported. The UK could be the home of sustainable foods. We need the policy makers to ensure that high food standards remain at the heart of any future trade deals.”

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