Grocery sales were up about 17 per cent during lockdown and online orders grew more than 90 per cent

Covid-19 has exposed the world’s fragile, complex food supply chains

In early July, as shops and restaurants were just beginning to open up again, I went to Suffolk to visit Hodmedod’s, a company that sells British-grown pulses and grains. Like many in the food sector, Josiah Meldrum, one of the three founders and directors, was coming up for air, trying to understand the magnitude of what has happened to his business this year and what the future would look like.

I sat at the table in the office kitchen while he put a pork belly in the oven for staff lunch. I could see the warehouse floor through an interior window, metal shelves neatly stacked with plastic bags of black-and-white carlin badger peas, yellow and orange split peas, green faro, red haricots.

“Everything changed overnight,” Meldrum recounted. “The moment (in March when) Boris Johnson said, ‘Don’t go to the pub’, we lost all our catering customers, 20 per cent of our business. At the same time, there was an extraordinary surge in online orders from home consumers — people sitting in their kitchens, worried they would never be able to buy flour again or realising they had time on their hands — they were furloughed and could start cooking.”

In that first week of lockdown, as supermarket shelves were cleared of staples such as flour, pasta, rice and tinned tomatoes, Hodmedod’s online sales soared 1,500 per cent.

For a small company with a dozen staff, who fill by hand every bag they sell — “pretty much a scoop-and-scales operation” says Meldrum — it was overwhelming. They had to close their website for a few days “to literally take stock”. They streamlined operations, selling only larger bags of 1kg or more and moved equipment to facilitate social distancing. Meldrum spent every weekend filling bags, 16 hours a day.

“Everyone was tired but morale was actually really good,” he told me. “Everyone got into this idea that we were key workers and we were going to get those orders out and make sure people had food in their cupboards.”

There’s nothing like empty supermarket shelves to focus the public’s attention on the issue of food supply. Demand from the food service industry (restaurants, canteens) fell off a cliff but correspondingly soared from domestic consumers now that everyone was eating all their meals at home.

According to Kantar, the market researcher, grocery sales were up about 17 per cent during lockdown and online orders grew more than 90 per cent. Direct farm sales went through the roof, veg box schemes were oversubscribed. Food producers who had sold to restaurants had to scramble to find alternative customers.

Homebound during lockdown, for many the evening meal became the focus of the day. People baked up a storm, went on sourdough adventures, started keeping chickens, while vegetable seed sales spiked. As consumers, we have become more interested in the provenance of our food over the past decade, but the pandemic has amplified concerns about the ethics and ecology of what we eat.

It has been made devastatingly clear that our planet’s health and our own are no longer separate. This is partly because Covid-19 is only the latest in a series of zoonotic diseases (HIV, Ebola, Sars, Zika) that have jumped species as humans plough further into forests, encroaching on wild habitats.

We understand now that food supply chains are not just about lorries and ports and supermarket distribution hubs. These supply chains are also the links between deforestation and climate change, biodiversity loss to us, to the microbiomes in our guts, the resilience of our immune systems and of our communities.

Grocery sales were up about 17 per cent during lockdown and online orders grew more than 90 per cent © James Clapham

With uncanny prescience, Tim Lang, a professor at the Centre for Food Policy at City University of London, published his book, Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them, in March at the beginning of lockdown. It’s a comprehensive indictment of the ironies and waste in the current system. The cover depicts a map of Britain as an entangled spaghetti of lorries, planes, ships, tomatoes and broccoli — a fitting illustration of the looping complexity of food issues.

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When I interviewed him via Zoom, Lang talked a mile a minute, bouncing between statistics and academic studies, veering from regenerative farming practices and global trade to parliamentary committee hearings and supermarket retail figures.

The Covid-19 threat to food supply may have waned slightly, but he warned that Brexit is looming and half of Britain’s food comes from abroad, mostly from the EU. Meanwhile, the government is desperate for a trade deal with the US that may open British markets to the industrialised American food system, with its hormone-injected beef and infamous chlorinated chicken.

“There has to be an acknowledgment of the connection between human health and ecosystem health,” Lang told me. He remains frustrated with government short-termism and ministerial silos that separate farming from nutrition, public health, the environment and trade. Britain, he observes, hasn’t had a dedicated food policy since the second world war.

When I tell him I have been to Suffolk to visit Hodmedod’s, he perks up. “Oh, Hodmedod’s! I love them,” he says. “They really embody the case for an integrated approach: shorter supply chains, a circular economy, public health.”

In fact, Hodmedod’s was created to be an example of the kind of joined-up thinking that Lang complains is missing. As Meldrum told me: “I have always seen food as a means of political engagement with a small p. Everyone is connected by food, it’s a way to start all sorts of interesting conversations.”

Meldrum and his co-founders had all previously worked on different agro-ecology projects in East Anglia, encouraging farmers to go organic, setting up farmers’ markets and lobbying for local authorities to source food more locally.

Together, they had the idea that providing farmers with a premium market for undervalued legumes — often grown as an intercrop between rotations of cereals to fix nitrogen into the soil — could be a way to encourage fewer chemical farming practices while also providing a rebalanced diet with less meat and more veg.

There has to be an acknowledgment of the connection between human health and ecosystem health

In 2012, they began the Great British Bean Project, buying up a batch of split fava beans due to be exported and repacking them on the kitchen table. They gave away 2,000 half-kilo bags at farmers’ markets and added them to veg boxes. A friend painted a pretty picture of a bean plant they made into postcards with a quick questionnaire on the back: “Did you like these beans? Did you know about British beans?”

“We thought: will everyone think we’re daft?” remembers Meldrum. A trickle of postcards came back. “The answers were amazingly positive and people even sent recipe ideas. We realised we were on to something.” Hodmedod’s now works with a growing network of amateur crop breeders and directly with farmers, and by guaranteeing to buy experimental harvests, has supported trials of Britain’s first commercially grown crops of lentils, chickpeas and chia seeds.

The picture during lockdown was inevitably varied, but while smaller producers were often able to adapt nimbly, the larger and more industrialised food sector found it harder. For example, flour was almost absent from supermarket shelves for many weeks, not because there was a shortage of wheat but because there was a shortage of packing capacity for smaller, 1kg bags suitable for home use.

The food industry has become more capital intensive, vertically integrated and concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Economies of scale have led to consolidated farms, huge factories, supermarkets (the nine big British food retailers control about 90 per cent of the nation’s grocery sales), but increasing fragility in the system.

The mantra of high yields and low prices is compelling. But margins are stretched razor thin while the external costs to public and environmental health are not being accounted for.

Food has never been cheaper (the percentage of disposable income spent on it in the UK has dropped since the second world war from a third to about 10 per cent today) or more plentiful, but while we are living longer, we are struggling with diet‑related illnesses such as obesity and diabetes, which also have fatal complications for those with Covid-19.

The pork belly we ate for lunch at Hodmedod’s came from Fred Price at Gothelney Farm outside Bristol, an example of a small producer who had managed to pivot from supplying restaurants. He bundled his pork with existing box schemes, supplied local bakeries and sold to a butcher in London. Through a scheme called On the Pass, designed to offer restaurant-quality produce to domestic customers, he figured out how to ship boxes of mixed cuts through the post.

I met Price when I visited his farm last year. He had taken over from his parents and for the past five or six years has farmed cereals and pigs regeneratively, with no chemical inputs. His ginger Tamworths scurry all over the long meadows, sows slump in the shade of their mini-huts as piglets suckle, snuggle and snuffle about, chasing butterflies and each other’s tails. Gothelney bacon — salty, ruddy and funky — is unbelievably delicious.

When I called him recently, he was looking forward to a good harvest in the wake of the plentiful spring sunshine. “I actually feel like we are a more resilient business now because we have more diverse outlets.

Video: A diet designed to save us, and the planetVideo: A diet designed to save us, and the planet

“Personally, naturally, I’ve felt a bit up and down, but to be honest it has been very heartening to see how people, in the time of a crisis, when things are stripped back to what matters, have understood that food is an important part of health. I think you can see this in the way direct sales have gone up so much. People are beginning to see the value of food beyond a price point.”

Nowhere have the iniquities of the chemical-industrial-food complex been more starkly illustrated during the Covid-19 crisis than in the meatpacking industry. Processing plants, where workers stand shoulder to shoulder along conveyor belts in cold humid conditions, became coronavirus hotspots from Belgium to Brazil and the US.

When Covid-19 outbreaks closed down American meatpacking plants in March and April, Donald Trump was convinced by industry heavyweights (some of whom had contributed large amounts to his presidential campaign) to issue an executive order, calling for plants to remain open as a matter of national security, all but indemnifying them against Covid-19 liability claims from sick workers.

But the shortages seem to have been fake news. American exports of pork and chicken to China increased during the pandemic; attempts by workers to unionise or complain about inadequate health provisions were thwarted; and some poultry plants managed to secure waivers to accelerate processing speeds — resisted for years by regulators, because they put such a strain on workers.

At the same time, sporadic closures of slaughterhouses created a bottleneck of animals. Without the space in feedlots or the cash flow for farmers to keep feeding animals, hundreds of thousands of hogs were gassed or shot and millions of chickens killed and bulldozed into landfill, even as Americans queued at food banks in record numbers.

“There is an opportunity for change,” Meldrum told me. “These are terrible times, pretty disastrous, and we just have to keep pushing for whatever positive outcomes are possible.”

Lockdown has accelerated direct sales innovations. More people than ever are ordering directly from producers online, buying food at open-air markets or subscribing to regular bread or dairy products or meat boxes, such as those from Gothelney farm.

After lunch, Meldrum took me to visit one of their lentil fields. It’s not certified organic, but they are not adding any chemical inputs. Poppies splashed red in the green. In places, there were the spade-shaped leaves of potato plants, remnants of last year’s crop. I bent to examine the rows of pale green feathery fronds spotted with mauve flowers and delicate papery pods, each containing a tiny bright green lentil.

He pulled up a plant to point out small whitish nodules on the roots, which, he explained, were teeming with specialised rhizobia, symbiotic bacteria that eat the sugars the plant makes through photosynthesis and in return fix nitrogen into the soil.

I began to understand that Hodmedod’s is less a link in a chain than a hub in a network. In the food supply system, just as in nature, there is resilience in diversity.

Wendell Steavenson writes about food and other things

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