Back in early March, I was in the Middle East on an assignment; watching the BBC World News, I began to see the impact of COVID-19 start to unravel in Italy, Spain and France — and then eventually the United Kingdom. In the end, I left two days earlier than planned and got back to the UK.
Three days later, flights back to the UK were cancelled. If you had said at the time that we would still be in lockdown some three months later and we would have had over 42,000 deaths in the UK, I would have found it hard to believe.
At that time, I was wondering “Are we over-reacting to this?” but in hindsight — a wonderful thing, of course — it seems as if we were probably not reacting quickly enough.
Since then, I and many in the fresh produce supply chain have had to get to grips with running the businesses we work for remotely. I think we all approached this with a degree of concern.
The general wisdom has often been that when using remote technology to communicate with other people, if you know the person you are talking to already, this is fine — but if not, then this could be more of a problem. This, in our experience, has not been the case. We are all in the same boat.
If you want something done, then this is the way it will be achieved. We have been busy talking to people all round the UK and then the rest of Europe, the Middle East, Central and Latin America, Russia, the U.S. and in Asia. Some we know already. Some we didn’t beforehand — but we do now!
In October, I was due to visit the major Fruit Attraction event in Madrid. It is not clear if this will still go ahead, which of our clients will be there, and what the arrangements will be in regard to social distancing for the 90,000 or so who attend from 120 countries. I would, of course, love to be there for all sorts of reasons — but at this stage, who knows?
There hasn’t been a fresh produce supplier or farm in the UK that hasn’t been impacted by COVID-19 in some shape, form or manner. In some instances, it has shown how fragile our supply chains both domestically and internationally are — in others, how robust they can be too.
The big-ticket items the fresh produce sector needs to address, though, won’t go away. These include developing sustainable and secure supply chains from farm to fork, understanding what is happening in local and world markets in what are truly unprecedented times, understanding the direction of travel in terms of international trade talks and issues surrounding market access, having a good feel for both customer and consumer behaviour and how this might (will!) change over the next 3, 6, 9, 12 months and beyond.
They are also all areas that have been accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
They are all areas we have been working extensively on, not just for the past few months, but over the past few years. We are of the firm belief that if something needed doing in these areas in early March, it almost certainly needs doing now, too, and putting it off for too long is not a good idea.
John Giles is a divisional director with Promar International, the consulting arm of Genus PLC.