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How will coronavirus change our food shopping habits?

It’s likely that the fallout from the coronavirus outbreak will result in a change to how we source and purchase our food, as we adjust to a ‘new normal’. The food and drink industries have been heavily hit by the effects of the public lockdown and social distancing requirements, with the hospitality sector effectively shutting down overnight.

Coronavirus has exposed the vulnerabilities in our food supply chains, a complex system that relies heavily on the cross-border movement of produce and migrant workers. Globalisation has been instrumental in the development in these complex food supply chains, with very few foods out of season at any point throughout the year. Despite the clear benefits of globalisation, the fluid movement of people and products it enables has inadvertently contributed to the rapid spread of this disease across the globe.

While the last few months have seen empty shelves and cases of mass hoarding of canned goods and toilet roll, it looks like we have now passed the initial panic buying phase, with supermarkets able to re-stock after placing restrictions on purchasing certain items. As consumers also look to avoid public places as much as possible, online orders and home deliveries have seen a marked increase, with supermarkets struggling to cope with this increase in demand. Now that the panic buying period has passed and that consumers find themselves ‘pantry-loaded’ this will give food supply chains the opportunity to refill. Under normal circumstances, a supermarket’s ‘Just-In-Time’ supply chain works incredibly well, particularly for keeping their costs down, but in recent weeks, this approach has been exposed by consumer stockpiling.

 

While empty supermarket shelves may have been the immediate knock-on effect of coronavirus, the effects will likely be around for some time. Border closures as a result of the virus will inevitably affect our food supplies in the months to come, with several other countries capping their exports to ensure their residents are prioritised. The decrease in air and sea freight capacity will also limit the available food for importation to the UK. In addition to this, a reduction in the number of migrant workers able to travel to the UK means that we are now facing huge labour shortages for the harvesting of seasonal produce, as well as for planting the next crop rotations. The UK Agri-Food sector relies on 70,000 seasonal workers to ensure that crops are picked throughout the year, most of whom originate from the EU.

The ‘Feed the Nation’ campaign is currently looking to recruit staff to make up this shortfall, from residents that are unemployed or furloughed. As it stands, only a third of workforce needed have been sourced to assist with the roles required to harvest the food that we have produced, meaning that we could see a repeat of scenes from across the world, where perfectly good vegetables are dumped or ploughed back into the ground because of a lack of labour.

Despite these challenging times, a growing number of small British farmers are stepping up to the challenge of feeding the nation by starting to sell online and offering local delivery services, redirecting food that was originally destined for restaurants. Not only is this a fantastic way to repurpose goods, this intervention goes a long way to minimising food waste of perishable goods. The added benefits are that consumers who are self-isolating or those who are looking to avoid supermarkets can minimise the number of times they need to leave their home. Recent weeks have also seen a dramatic increase in demand for locally sourced veg-boxes. The public is beginning to see the advantages of purchasing locally, from the environmental benefits of minimised travel from farm to fork, to the positive effects these farms have on the environment, such as increasing biodiversity and addressing climate change, whilst keeping money in the local economy.

What is clear is that the coronavirus pandemic is likely to re-shape the way that we think about where we get our food. In just a couple of months, we have seen a significant change in our shopping behaviours, with a revitalisation of traditional food production. The pandemic has seen an explosion in home baking and stocks of vegetable seeds are running low from suppliers, as concerns of coronavirus-induced food shortages spread. Supermarkets have struggled to keep up with the dramatic increase in demand for online orders for home deliveries and consumers are once again building relationships with local food producers, relationships that will likely remain after the social distancing restrictions of coronavirus are lifted. Despite the chaos caused by coronavirus, there are now clear opportunities to diversify our food supply chain, while promoting sustainable agriculture, which is hugely beneficial to local businesses.

If you would like to find out about the latest thinking on how the agri-food sector might meet these challenges sustainably you might consider signing up for the Sustainable Supply Systems module starting 10th June 2020.


The Future of Packaging

Isn’t plastic fantastic? It has profoundly changed the way we live our lives.

In particular, plastic packaging has been instrumental in our ability to prolong the lifespan of foods, by protecting our favourite foodstuffs from microbial spoilage, oxidation and contamination, resulting in longer shelf lives and a reduction in food waste. Plastic packaging has supported the globalisation of food supply and has ensured that our foods arrive at the nearest supermarket in impeccable condition.

Despite these advances and the clear benefits in practicality and safety, we have lost control of the environmental burden of waste plastic. It is a well quoted statistic that at the current rate, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish (by weight) by 2050. 300 Million Metric tonnes of plastic is produced annually worldwide, with 30% of this disposed of immediately after consumption. The pollution generated by food packaging has reached a critical point and as the world’s population increases, the issue will only be exacerbated.

Plastic Packaging is essential for keeping our food fresh. © littleny / Adobe Stock

Some of the statistics relating to this are staggering. 95% of the value of plastic packaging materials is lost to the economy after a single use. Only 14% of packaging material is collected for recycling and as a result of the losses associated with sorting and reprocessing, only 5% of this material is retained for subsequent use, with these plastics usually ending up as lower-value products.

The major issue with plastic packaging is that it is made to last forever but designed to be discarded. Food packaging is a particularly challenging waste stream for end of life management as it is likely to be multi-material (challenging to recycle) and is often contaminated with residual food (will need cleaning prior to processing). There is an urgent need for a culture change and to develop alternative plastics for packaging. New innovations in plastic production have seen bio-derived and/or biodegradable products emerge as genuine substitutes to their fossil-fuel derived cousins. Researchers are currently looking at alternatives to fossil-fuel feedstocks for plastics by utilising greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide, as well as developing biomass-derived plastics for packaging. Recovering waste gases from the atmosphere or from industrial flues is not yet economically viable and the burden of biomass-based feedstocks on land and water usage, as well as its impact on biodiversity is not yet understood.

Polymers such as polylactic acid (PLA), a bioplastic derived from corn starch, has emerged as a genuine alternative in certain cases. PLA production generates 69% fewer greenhouse gases and uses 65% less energy to produce than conventional plastics. This bio-derived and biodegradable polymer has seen uptake for uses such as cold beverage containers and food trays, however its application has been limited as it is not suitable for hot drinks. A further drawback of this material is that it is only suitable for industrial composting, meaning that that the packaging can’t be added to garden composters.

Plastic Packaging is designed to be discarded. © Joaquin Corbalan

Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) are a novel class of bio-derived and biodegradable polymers, produced by microbial fermentation of carbon-based feedstocks, which have the potential to replace conventional plastics in a range of applications. A particularly exciting feature of PHAs is that they have a ‘tunable’ property set, whereby the final product can be tailored to its application based on the feedstock and the production process. Additional bonuses of this class of polymers are that they could replace the need for multi-layer plastics for packaging (which are difficult to recycle) and can even be composted alongside food waste, eliminating the costs associated with conventional recycling such as washing, and separating. Crucially, the most recent developments mean organic waste can be used as a feedstock, reducing dependency on primary crops.

The “Attenborough Effect” means that we are currently experiencing a public backlash against plastic packaging, although there is little coherence on the true solution to the problem. What is evident is that there is clearly a market opportunity for bioplastics as a result of the increased pressure from consumers to make a positive change to their products.

BioInnovation Wales have developed a module on the Future of Packaging, with a goal of raising awareness around packaging and exploring how we can shift towards a circular economy in which plastic is minimised and properly managed. The aim of this module is to assess the challenges and opportunities around packaging, and to provide businesses with the knowledge to develop their own packaging strategies. To learn more about the module, click the link below -

https://bioinnovationwales.org.uk/study-options/distance-learning/future-packaging/

 

Dr Mathew Jones

maj57@aber.ac.uk