As we head towards the anniversary of that first lockdown, we are reminded of the challenges that have faced us this last year. It’s not been easy but, to look on the positive, upheavals always provide opportunities for change and I think we are seeing signs that this is true for the food sector.
In the UK, Covid-19 has coincided with our new Brexit reality to perhaps encourage more consumers across Yorkshire to eat more local food. Although the last few weeks has brought some interruption to food supplies in supermarkets, it is a reminder about the importance of UK produced food.
Where our food comes from, and how it gets to us, is a fundamental part of our daily lives. As we digest the new trading conditions, indications hint that people are rethinking the choices they make. I suspect what we are seeing now at ports will only be for a short time – hauliers and growers will quickly overcome the challenges, and we will see supermarkets filled again with the global produce everyone is used to.
However, the pandemic has brought many changes to habits around how we get our food. Undoubtedly, more time at home and less opportunity to eat out means our interest in cooking from scratch has surged, with local high-streets across the area benefiting from people shopping on their own doorsteps.
Supermarkets do a fantastic job of supplying food, but are perhaps facing a tide of change. Customers are more conscious than ever about sustainability, plastic, and the impact of carbon miles. The sight of empty shelves, together with these changing trends means, at the very least, a fresh look at what is available here in Yorkshire and across the UK.
Year-round produce, brought in from far away, is a 21st Century experience. An availability of exotic fruits, even when out of season, perhaps meant we all took our UK food for granted.
"We should keep learning how to make the most of what we grow, in the season that it is available."
Perhaps we have a better understanding now of the work it takes to produce it, and why it is important to know where it comes from. This has helped us become a bit savvier with our spending, with fresh strawberries and asparagus in January now seeming not quite as essential as perhaps we once felt.
By value, the UK is only 55 per cent self-sufficient for our food supplies. This is not because the farming sector cannot provide more local crops, but instead is due to market forces pushing supermarkets to provide unlimited choice all year-round. This is helped by the ease of moving food around the world, with global ‘just-in-time’ supply chains.
It is likely that in light of recent challenges around Brexit and COVID-19, our food self-sufficiency has improved. But, we still have further to go, and should keep learning how to make the most of what we grow, in the season that it is available. This message will be further reinforced as the industry works towards Net Zero, building on its already good foundations of climate sustainability.
In my role as UK Head of Agriculture, I am very lucky to see up close just how good our Yorkshire produce is, and the care and dedication that goes into getting it to the table from farmers and food and drink producers across the region.
I look forward to seeing consumer habits continue to change for the better, which means we can support Yorkshire farmers while reducing our impact on the environment. These trends will speed up over the next 12 months, and I am confident that there is real momentum behind buying local produce. We can all play a part in this food revolution to make sure British farming keeps doing what it’s good at: feeding the nation and offering us great value for money.
About the author: Brian Richardson is the UK Head of Agriculture for Yorkshire Bank.