From Farm to Fork in a Time of Crisis

The latest ‘Food for Europe’ podcast from the European Union, broadcast at the end of 2021, contains some interesting reflections on the impact of the pandemic on food supplies and what is being done to strengthen the EU’s defences against food shortages in the future.

Everybody interviewed in the podcast made perfect sense in what they said. The pandemic had produced supply side problems as ‘just-in-time’ deliveries were held up. Supplies had been cut by shortages of the seasonal labour necessary at harvest-time. It was pointed out that the pandemic had been responsible for some recent supply problems. Climate change was increasingly disrupting supplies. Cyberattacks might disrupt the information systems on which deliveries depended. Even if the pandemic went away, the problem of unreliable supply of food would remain with us.

One person pointed out that sourcing local produce would help to reduce the complexity of organising just-in-time deliveries of fresh food. The Deputy Director of the EU’s Agriculture department, Michael Scanell, was keen to say that much of the EU’s ‘green deal’ was designed precisely in order to encourage local sourcing of food, a point that might be disputed but which at least showed awareness of the pressure of  sourcing local produce.

But there was one contribution to the podcast which seemed to go unnoticed. Here Mr Scanell did not dive in in order to claim that the EU’s plans were ‘the solution, not the problem.’ That was the point made by a dairy farmer from the Auvergne who needed animal feed to keep his five-hundred-pound bull going. We need to feed the animals that will feed us, he pointed out. But feed stocks ran to only a week’s supply. The private sector could not be relied on to provide stocks in an emergency. There was need for an additional buffer.

The farmer was right in his assessment but judging from the conclusions to the podcast this did not seem to register with the movers and shakers in the EU’s agriculture department.  There was a lot of talk about the need for better communications, for knowing who does what and the benefits of everyone having lots of trust. Of course, it’s always good to have lots of trust. It’s also good to have lots of animal feed in reserve. Building up emergency stocks (which is done with oil, where 90 days of stocks are required by law) is essential. If you have enough reserves of oil to keep the heating going for ninety days, it shouldn’t be difficult to do the same for the Auvergne farmer’s bull. Otherwise, however much trust we all have in each other, there won’t be any way to avoid empty shelves in the supermarket the next time there’s a food crisis.