4 June 2020

Sheffield Geographer secures funding for major research into food resilience in times of pandemic

The project will enhance the resilience of the overall UK food system by supporting the under-resourced, but crucial, local food sector.

Vegetable beds in an allotment

Dr Anna Krzywoszynska, Research Fellow at the Department of Geography and Associate Director at the Institute for Sustainable Food, has secured ESRC funding for a major research project entitled “The local as a site of food security resilience in the times of pandemic: opportunities, challenges and ways forward”. Working alongside co-investigator Professor Damian Maye of the Countryside and Community Research Institute at the University of Gloucestershire, Dr Krzywoszynska will work with project partners across the country including producer associations, short supply chain coordinators, and third-sector organisations, in order to deliver UK-wide impact.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already significantly impacted on the UK’s food system. In the UK, food provisioning is highly centralised, with just five supermarket brands dominating the market. Supermarkets also operate just-in-time supply chains, and minimise warehousing, which means that sudden changes in the food system can have significant effects. During the first weeks of the pandemic and the resulting lockdown, shelves emptied as demand skyrocketed. Since then, ongoing physical distancing measures have led to a shift towards online grocery shopping, but while the supermarkets are now ramping up their delivery capacity, this demand has still not been met. Further disruptions are likely to emerge as a result of longer-term effects of the pandemic. There are questions around how growers and other actors in the food chains will cope with labour shortages and with new health and safety measures. Furthermore, the UK depends for its food security on well-functioning global supply chains; these may become disrupted as some nation states have already started to stockpile food they would normally be exporting, and as their harvests become affected by efforts to contain the pandemic.

The shock of the pandemic illustrates the overall vulnerability of the UK’s food system. In this project, we will find ways to bolster the resilience of UK's food security now, as the pandemic develops, and draw lessons for the future. A key element of resilience is functional diversity - the more pathways there are to meet the same objective, the more resilient a system is. In the case of the UK's food security, such functional diversity is provided by the local food system - by local food producers and direct sales organisations. We can see this functional diversity operating in practice: at this moment, the local food sector is stepping up to meet the shortfall in food supply, especially with regards to direct deliveries. Direct sales of vegetable boxes from local growers or community supported agriculture schemes have more than doubled, and local food producers or high-quality goods such as speciality cheeses and meats have pivoted from supplying restaurants to online sales. Interestingly, the pandemic has also affected consumers’ perceptions, with people reporting a greater appreciation for food and reduced food wasting, potentially opening up a space for a renewed debate about how food should be valued in our society.

In the first stage, the project will work with a range of project partners within this sector to capture its contribution to UK's food security at this time, and to identify where help is needed to maximise its impact and to secure the livelihoods of local food actors. In the later stages, the team will work with the project partners to draw out lessons on how this contribution can be maintained to make UK's food systems more robust, especially in light of the upcoming Brexit-related food system disruptions

“We know that our food systems are not sustainable, and the COVID-19 pandemic is a direct result of this unsustainability. We have a chance to use this moment to change food systems for the better. We know that re-localising food is key for food security and for environmental sustainability. This project will allow us to better understand how we can strengthen the local food sector in the UK to ensure a better food future. I am thrilled that we can contribute to this important and timely work through our research.”

Dr Anna Krzywoszynska

This project will help to enhance the resilience of the overall UK food system by supporting an under-resourced but crucial sector. By gathering and feeding in resilience-related data to the local food sector and policymakers, the project will help maximise the contribution of this sector to the UK’s overall food security.

Professor Jenny Pickerill, Head of the Geography Department, said: “We are incredibly excited about this new research project led by Anna Krzywoszynska. Geography at the University of Sheffield has an internationally-recognised expertise in food, particularly at the intersection of scientific and social science understandings of food provision, quality, security and poverty. This project builds on and incorporates this expertise at a crucial time in society when, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the vulnerability of our food supply chains have become all too apparent.”

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