Supermarkets have been placed under immense pressure due to a significant increase in sales.   

New research on the management of the disruptive social and economic impacts of COVID-19 in the context of the food supply chain

Professors Michael Winter and Matt Lobley and Dr Tim Wilkinson from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Rural Policy Research (CRPR) have been awarded £180,000 by the ESRC to conduct research on the management of the disruptive social and economic impacts of COVID-19 in the context of the food supply chain.

From panic buying to shortages, real or perceived, COVID-19 is leaving its mark on the food system. Following the UK government’s lockdown announcement in March 2020 in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus, the proportion of food and beverage expenditure spent on eating out in restaurants, fast-food outlets and pubs plummeted from above 30% to almost zero. In addition, supermarkets have been placed under immense pressure due to a significant increase in sales.   

Whilst media attention has focused on retail and consumers, the impact of these measures has also been felt in the less visible parts of the food supply chain: food manufacture, processing, packaging and distribution, and it is in these sectors that rapid restructuring has been, and will be, required most. Efficient and well-functioning supply chains are essential to maximising required social distancing and maintaining good health and it is vital in the coming months that the nation's food supplies are secure and resilient. Professor Winter explains: “To achieve resilience we need to know how the supply chain is adapting, and critically, what steps might be required to ensure food continues to reach shops and that there is fairness for food workers and consumers.” The research will look at five main food sectors: dairy, fish, fresh fruit and vegetables, flour, and meat.

Working with a panel of experts for England drawn from the five main food sectors, as well as farming industry and policy experts, the research will examine the extent of continuity and dislocation in the supply chain. It will also look at instances of radical changes in routes to markets and the barriers to change such as technical capacity, market intelligence, transport, and labour availability and skills. The research will consider the experiences of primary producers as supply chains adapt and change, and what regulations, incentives, investments or interventions might be required to optimise supply chain adjustments and ensure fairness.

Date: 15 May 2020