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UK Food and Nutrition Security During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic

The project investigates the effects of COVID-19 on UK food systems
The project investigates the effects of COVID-19 on UK food systems
"World-leading research to provide government, business and decision makers with the evidence that they need to develop a robust food and nutrition security response to COVID-19."

"World-leading research to provide government, business and decision makers with the evidence that they need to develop a robust food and nutrition security response to COVID-19."

The project partners have launched a survey to gather data from key stakeholders on how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting the UK’s food and nutrition security. Access it here.

The COVID-19 pandemic is having substantial consequences on UK and global economies and hence food and nutrition security (FNS). This project has undertaken world-leading research to assess the emerging situation and provide government, business and decision makers with the evidence that they need to develop robust responses to future threats to food and nutrition security arising from climate change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation.

The pandemic has and continues to cause major shocks to the four pillars of food and nutrtion security: access; availability; utilisation and stability. Examples have included reductions in productivity (labour limitations), breakdown of norms of food systems (distribution, changed demand) and supply chain restrictions (available storage). Economic impacts are altering both supply, distribution and demand. Collectively these shocks are substantially altering food systems whilst in the longer-term norms of trade may not adapt appropriately, as a result of Brexit and new trade deals, leading to changes in the balance of traded commodities, reduction in sustainability of production, food standards, food reserves and potentially price increases.

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council through UK Research and Innovation COVID-19 response, the project focuses on UK FNS which is heavily dependent on global markets. Nearly half of the food we consume is imported and UK livestock industries rely heavily on imported feed. The aim of this study was to:

  1. Conduct an initial assessment considering impacts of the pandemic on international trade and UK food and nutrition security. 
  2. Consider the lessons learned from the pandemic and explore options for changes in agricultural production, trade and distribution to increase resilience of the food system without jeopardising wider ecological and climate goals.

The overall purpose has been to provide input into the wider dabate on food system transformation to achieve the multiple objectives of improved human and environmental health and how the system can become resilient to future shocks.

Latest: Final Report now available

UK food and nutrition security during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. The James Hutton Institute, Chatham House, Cranfield University. 14th December 2021.

This final report from the project summarises the main findings from the eight individual reports (see Project Publications below).

The key message from this research, in light of lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, is the need for preparation and contingency planning with national food system strategies and internationally agreed measures to protect food and nutrition security. Fundamentally, prevention, in the form of reducing climate risks through deep and rapid mitigation and well-resourced support for adaptation in the food system, integrated with the reversal of environmental damage through the use of sustainable production methods and ecosystem restoration will help progress towards protecting food and nutrition security against future risks.

The key findings are:

  • Concerns at the start of the pandemic of very severe impacts on the food system and consequences on the UK’s food and nutritional security, in respect of production losses causing shortages and rapid increase in prices, did not materialise.
  • Based on the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation’s definitions, the UK did not become food insecure during the pandemic, however, economic and physical access difficulties by those on low incomes and reduced mobility meant increased hardship and increased occurence of food and nutrition insecurity.
  • Food and nutrition insecurity grew in the UK during the pandemic. The impacts highlighted and exacerbated existing food and nutrition security inequalities in the UK and globally.The percentage of food insecure adults was 7.6% pre-COVID, rising to 9.7% at the start of the pandemic, increasing further to 9.9% in the period February to July 2021, affecting 5.2 million adults (The Food Foundation).
  • In 2020 and early 2021 the COVID-19 pandemic primarily caused a demand-side economic shock to the food system, both in the UK and globally, with a disproportionately larger economic and physical access impact on vulnerable groups, leading to an increase in food poverty rather than a supply-side production shock resulting in empty supermarket shelves.
  • Food system logistics globally continued to function adequately during the pandemic disruptions, but the limits of its resilience to plausible future threats were exposed. 
  • International trade of food broadly remained effective despite some regions having been affected by supply-chain constraints and some markets by significant shortages and price rises.
  • UK food prices have remained relatively stable. Prices rose during the first national lockdown but fell for much of the rest of 2020, but in 2021 UK prices have risen steadily, reflecting global trends, which have been increasing consistently since May 2020 despite generally plentiful food supplies. Globally, prices are likely to increase in 2022 due to rising inputs costs, particularly for energy.
  • The food system as it currently operates is subject to market forces that do not fully account for the costs to society of poor health outcomes due to poor diet and utilisation, nor environmental damage from unsustainable production practices. The implication is that we do not value human and environmental health outcomes appropriately in the economics of the food system.
  • The food system accounts for c. 34% of global greenhouse gas emissions.In 2015, food-system emissions amounted to 18 Gt CO2 equivalent per year globally, representing 34% of total GHG emissions. The largest contribution came from agriculture and land use/land-use change activities (71%), with the remaining were from supply chain activities: retail, transport, consumption, fuel production, waste management, industrial processes and packaging (Crippa et al 2021). 
  • There is a risk that the limited impact of the pandemic on the food system could lead to complacency through the misleading conclusion that the system is resilient. This potentially endangers the effective transformation that is required to increase food and nutrition security and tackle the climate emergency.
  • Future climate and environmental degradation shocks are likely to affect production rather than demand, with subsequent food shortages leading to increased economic access difficulties for those on low incomes.
  • There are important trade-offs between land use and food production in the UK in response to drives to increased self-reliance, the ability to increase agricultural yields, and plans to increase tree cover, bioenergy crops, or bespoke biodiversity areas on farms (see Deliverable 5 report link below). Increasing the level of food imports creates greater flexibility for UK land use decisions and was associated with positive impacts on UK soil functions. Conversely, a reduction in net imports reduces the availability of UK agricultural land for other purposes (e.g. woodland creation, biodiversity and protected area status)
  • Soil function indicators mapping has highlighted how land use changes under different future scenarios either positively or negatively impact key environmental benefits supported by soil (carbon storage, primary productivity, water supply, nutrient availability and pollination).
  • There are good opportunities to align production of food groups for healthy diets. Moving from current to the recommended patterns in the Eatwell Guide requires more energy to be derived from carbohydrate and protein, and less from fat. The proportion of simple sugars in consumed carbohydrates should be halved, salt consumption should be reduced, and fibre consumption increased.  
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a “K” response in the consumption of healthier food: some people have healthier diets; many people have had a less healthy diet.  Because unhealthy food is typically cheaper than healthy food, financial insecurity leads to less healthy diets.
  • There are risks and opportunities of aligning food production to demand. To increase production to match demand more closely for those commodities already produced in the UK, while at the same time adjusting to aligned production with diets that are healthier for humans and the environment, will have consequences for land use, farm inputs, and income.
  • There are positive impacts of adopting agroecological farm practices. Sustainable production of food in the UK requires a transition to agroecological practices where the farmed environment is managed for provision of multiple benefits in terms of both crop production and the environment. 
  • There are large opportunities to increase UK protein production. While the UKs food system is legume-dependent, these are not home-grown, Consequently, and in addition to the risks of import dependency, the environmental benefits of home-grown legumes are forfeited. More investment in legume grain processing capacities nationally would also help achieve the commercial of legumes for human consumption. There is real opportunity to realise more agroecologically-balanced agriculture using legumes for their multifunctional and complex provisions, including the replacement of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers and enhancement of essential soil functions.
  • There is increasing potential for the use of new technologies, such as Controlled Environment Agriculture and precision agriculture.

Based on these findings, the report goes on to raise some key questions and provide responses:

Will the pandemic drive change?  A fundamental question becomes “has the pandemic been a sufficiently impactful event large enough to drive change in the food system?”. Our conclusion is that it has not, on the basis that supply was maintained. The pandemic has primarily caused a demand-side shock, not a supply-side one.

A second following key question thus needs to be asked: “Do we have a false sense of national food and nutrition security?”. There is a substantial risk that the overall conclusion drawn to the first question is that the current structure of the food system is resilient because it maintained supply and that a sufficiently large enough majority of businesses remained financially viable (indeed for some, profits increased). This risks development of a false sense of security and over-confidence in the ability of the food system to cope with future sporadic, multi-faceted and geographically diverse production-based shocks which may have unpredictable cascading consequences through food price rise impacts and differences in geopolitical responses.

Lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst the pandemic has affected everyone, it has had differentiated impacts on society and economic sectors. This has been termed the “K” response.  In respect of learning from this experience and developing strategies for improving food and nutrition security, in the UK and globally, the key lessons include:

  • Prevention is better than cure: the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board estimates the pandemic response costs so far at $11 trillion, with a future loss of $10 trillion in earnings, whereas preparing for a pandemic would have cost the world $5 per person.
  • Potential negative effects of the pandemic have been avoided by food trade between countries remaining relatively stable.  There is a need to maintain international trade and not impose export restrictions, to maintain the flow of food and materials to enable its production.
  • It is essential to maintain supply-side capabilities when the demand-side is impacted by economic access difficulties, otherwise production shortages will drive price rises compounding economic hardship.
  • The pandemic impacted already vulnerable people the most, particularly those on low incomes, women and some ethnic groups who saw further reductions, or those who lost their income source, for example, those excluded from the furlough scheme. Government supports schemes helped alleviate the worst of the impacts by reducing economic access issues and hence food and nutrition insecurity, but there remained a heavy reliance on the third sector to provide additional support.
  • Policies and financial support can respond at scale and speed when necessary.
  • Governmental responses to the pandemic stress-tested the reliability of the global food system, revealing the potential for supply disruptions to global trade as border friction increased. In the UK, Brexit compounded border friction in our busiest trade routes. The complexity of the interactions in the system made predictions extremely challenging.

The need for preparation: To develop a food system that will better cope with future production shocks due to climate change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation and improve resilience for food and nutrition security, the primary lesson from the pandemic is that prevention is better than cure, and that preparation and contingency planning can reduce the severity of impacts.

The food system has not been stress-tested by the pandemic. The primary stress on the food system during the pandemic was a demand-side shock. However, climate change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation are likely to cause supply-side shocks, for which the food system has not yet been stress tested. 

An opportunity to reflect and adapt. The pandemic is an opportunity to pause and reflect on what society wants from the way our economies are structured and organised. A key part of this is how we build a safe and resilient food system that ends hunger and malnutrition, is equitable, economically viable and improves human and environmental health. Given the scale of transformation needed to achieve these multiple objectives, it is essential to establish fora through which a diversity of stakeholders can voice their experience and concerns, to enable meaningful dialogue on developing solutions. This necessitates the opportunity to challenge the power relations in the food system and develop a shared vision of what a sustainable, resilient and equitable food system looks like and how this can be achieved.

Looking Forward: The Decade of Change. The United Nations has described this as the Decade of Change in recognition of the challenges society faces in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals in the face of the climate, biodiversity and ecological health crises. At the core of the SDGs is the need to end hunger and achieve food and nutrition security for all people. The actions needed to meet these challenges must be rapid and at scale: reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately; adopt sustainable environmentally beneficial food production practices; restore degraded ecosystems; align land and marine use for food production, processing and retail with healthy diets; develop safety nets to protect the most vulnerable when shocks occur; internalise the human and environmental costs within the food system.

Project Publications:


Rivington, M., King, R., Duckett, D., Iannetta, P., Benton, T.G., Burgess, P., Hawes, C., Wellesley, L., Polhill, J.G., Aitkenhead, M., Lozada‐Ellison, L.‐M., Begg, G., Williams, A.G., Newton, A., Lorenzo‐Arribas, A., Neilson, R., Watts, C., Harris, J., Loades, K., Stewart, D., Wardell‐Johnson, D., Gandossi, G., Udugbezi, E., Hannam, J. and Keay, C. (2021), UK food and nutrition security during and after the COVID‐19 pandemic. Nutr Bull, 46: 88-97.  


Related articles:

An ecological perspective of COVID-19 and the UK food system - Paul Burgess, Cranfield University.

Key Project Objectives:

  1. Assess the current response of global food systems.
  2. Assess UK food system responses and vulnerabilities.
  3. Assess cascading causation of further impacts within a common framework of differing plausible scenarios.
  4. Propose alternative agricultural land use, land management and supply / value chain relationships for improved UK self-reliance and long-term environmental sustainability.
  5. Identify spatial consequences on the environment of pandemic responses and opportunities for improved FNS and food system resilience through sustainable agriculture.
  6. Review lessons learned from the pandemic for adapting the food system to help achieve climate change and biodiversity goals.
  7. Disseminate results and provide recommendations to inform policy development to increase food system resilience.

Principal investigator:

  • Mike Rivington, James Hutton Institute


  • Tim Benton, Chatham House
  • Richard King, Chatham House
  • Paul Burgess, Cranfield University
  • Jim Harris, Cranfield University
  • Pete Ianetta, James Hutton Institute
  • Derek Stewart, James Hutton Institute
  • Cathy Hawes, James Hutton Institute
  • Roy Neilson, James Hutton Institute
  • Gary Polhill, James Hutton Institute
  • Adrian Newton, James Hutton Institute
  • Dominic Duckett, James Hutton Institute

For more information on the project, contact Mike Rivington.

Project Information
Project Type: 
Active Project


Areas of Interest

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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.