More than once in the past few months, I have come across two adjacent headlines describing the effects of Covid-19 on the UK’s food system: one describes the risk (or reality) of huge amounts of food waste, and the other highlights unprecedented demand at food banks across the country.
This, of course, is not a new observation; food inequality existing alongside staggering levels of food waste is one of the most perverse and unacceptable paradoxes of our global food system. However, the recent crisis has exacerbated and revealed to a terrible extent the mismatches in the supply and demand of food, which have significant social and environmental consequences.
The reasons underlying these issues are complex, with labour shortages and increasing social inequality playing a part. And so, whilst any lasting solutions will require a systemic approach, digital technologies could play – and in some places are already playing – an important and immediate role in food redistribution. By linking up producers, retailers and consumers in new ways, digital sharing platforms can increase flexibility and fill in the gaps of a supply chain under pressure.
Food waste has been caused by an inflexible system
Many farmers who supplied the hospitality and catering industry before lockdown saw demand for their products collapse as schools and restaurants were ordered to shut. However, producers found it difficult to shift this supply from one market to another and so, rather than going to support struggling households or filling the empty shelves of early March, huge amounts of food went to waste.
There are several reasons for this failure to link up supply and demand. Transportation and finding new buyers can be difficult, but is only one part of the problem. Retailers often have specific packaging requirements which many producers don’t have the equipment to satisfy, or product standards that new suppliers don’t meet. Storage can also be an issue, with many farmers lacking the capacity to hold onto their produce for the time it takes to look for new takers.
All of these problems contributed to the reports of mountains of vegetables being left to rot in the fields and gallons of milk being poured down the drain, whilst the Trussell Trust reported an 81 per cent increase in demand for its emergency food parcels.
Better information opens up new channels
A £3.25 million fund, set up by the government at the beginning of April, has acted as a short term fix for these issues, supporting food redistribution organisations such as FareShare, City Harvest and the Felix Project. These have ramped up their usual operations significantly during the pandemic, taking surplus food to where it’s most needed.
Until more systemic reform is achieved, both in terms of food waste and addressing the underlying causes of household food insecurity, it’s likely that demand at food banks will remain high, food waste from supermarkets will continue to be an issue and there will be instances when producers are left without a market for their goods. But there are solutions.
Problems arising from highly specific packaging and product requirements should prompt us to question why we’ve come to expect such unvaried produce in our supermarkets all year round. And, whilst transport and storage dilemmas require infrastructure solutions, digital platforms could enable new channels for suppliers to sell produce at risk of going to waste, for supermarkets to make better use of surplus food and for charities to meet demand.
A 2019 study by the University of Amsterdam Business School looked in detail at what digital technology could offer sharing platforms, over non-digital approaches. It suggested that the digital features allowed supply chain actors to see more easily what’s available in their local area through location sharing, and more and faster connections could be made between supply and demand.
Digitalisation allows for easy measurement, not only of the produce on offer, but also of the benefits that can be gained. Understanding the social impact and environmental damage avoided as a result of food redistribution encourages businesses in the supply chain to engage with these platforms.
New ways to get food to where it’s needed
Existing digital platforms have been seen in action in recent months. Food drop is a food redistribution organisation which relies on digital technology to link up surplus food from food outlets with charities, supported by volunteers.
Digital tools can also work at a much smaller scale. ‘Too Good to Go’ is a an app which connects individuals with food outlets where food is at risk of going to waste. OLIO plays a similar role in finding takers for unwanted food, including between households, from pints of milk to optimistically-bought vegetables, and it hosts listings for non-food items to support the circular economy more broadly.
We have also witnessed new sales channels, and a shift toward shorter, more localised supply chains. According to the Food Foundation, there has been a 111 per cent increase in sales of farm vegetable boxes in response to Covid-19, with farms diversifying into new business models, as their usual customer bases disappeared overnight. Digital platforms are well positioned to remove some of the traditional barriers to entry into new markets.
Platforms like Farm Drop work to provide farm-to-table goods, and many of the producers offer reduced prices on produce that wouldn’t otherwise make it to the supermarkets, like wonky vegetables or meat offcuts. Using digital technologies for these new channels, alongside food surplus redistribution, will be vital to establishing more diverse, resilient and local supply networks.
What if we were to keep up this momentum and use digital tools to permanently establish shorter supply chains, and a coherent national food surplus supply system? As well as cutting food waste and feeding those in need, these platforms could also support more direct farm sales, helping to provide producers with a guaranteed market and protect against supply chain shocks in future.
This is the second in a series of blogs in which we will explore how digital technologies could play an important role in reducing the environmental impact of the agrifood sector and how it can be strengthened in the face of future uncertainty.