Coronavirus: How will the outbreak affect food and farming?

Farming experts have raised concerns that future coronavirus restrictions could potentially affect t

Farming experts have raised concerns that future coronavirus restrictions could potentially affect the seasonal migrant workforce needed for jobs such as fruit-picking. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The coronavirus outbreak could potentially hit farming’s seasonal workforce and hinder food imports – and industry leaders said this worst-case scenario should act as a wake-up call to bolster the nation’s food security.

Nick Deane of Bure Farm Services is the Norfolk branch chairman of the National Farmers' Union (NFU)

Nick Deane of Bure Farm Services is the Norfolk branch chairman of the National Farmers' Union (NFU). Picture: Chris Hill. - Credit: Chris Hill

So far, agricultural industry leaders have reported little impact from the Covid-19 virus, aside from some precautionary cancellations and postponements of non-essential meetings and farm inspections.

But concerns have been raised over the potential future impact if the outbreak reaches the same scale as in countries like Italy, prompting more severe containment measures to be enforced.

While the exact implications are impossible to predict, further travel restrictions could limit the influx of vital seasonal workers needed to pick and pack fruit and vegetable crops in the summer, while the movement of some imported foods could be prevented if the virus prompts a major shutdown in their country of origin.

Nick Deane, who farms at Hoveton, and is the chairman of the Norfolk branch of the National Farmers' Union (NFU), said: 'My instinctive feeling is that anything that impinges on trade will impinge on us. We are an importing and exporting country and lot of our out-of-season vegetables come from abroad, so there could be ramifications there if trade is curtailed.

'The other thing which probably has a more serious impact is if restrictions on travel occur, because we need 70,000 seasonal workers in this country. Many of the crops we are growing now are currently under fleeces and being protected to produce fruit such as strawberries from late May onwards, so it could be the case that you have fruit growing in the field and there would be no-one to harvest it.

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'We could be in a crazy situation where we have the fruit we need in this country and we cannot get it out of the ground. That is a realistic threat to us.

'If we go into shutdown there could be a surplus of products we would normally export and a deficit in things we would normally import. For example, there could be a situation where we cannot import oranges from Spain, but we have a glut of apples here we cannot harvest.'

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Mr Deane said these concerns proved the crucial importance of safeguarding the country's food security, at a time when there are longer-term industry concerns that British farms could be left unable to compete with cheaper lower-quality food imports as a result of post-Brexit deals currently being negotiated by the government.

That sentiment was echoed by Prof Andrew Fearne, an expert in value chain management at the University of East Anglia. He said while the coronavirus outbreak would bring a severe short-term shock, it could help highlight our food system's reliance on imports and migrant workers.

'No-one knows what is going to happen - we can only speculate on what might happen,' he said. 'Clearly agriculture and food is a labour-intensive industry, so where you need labour which may not be available because people are self-isolating, or on shutdown, it may mean some staff cannot come and go and there could be stockpiles of food all over Europe and the world. If boats are not sailing and planes are not flying, then it could happen. But we simply don't know - no-one has a model for this.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Questions and answers'But food does not carry the virus, so you would have to have a significant shutdown for us to not be able to get the essentials of food and medicines.

'I am not a Domesday merchant. I would rather look at this in the long-term.

'The coronavirus is a 'black swan' event - something that no-one sees coming which disrupts the status quo. These events have an immediate negative impact but there could be a long-term benefit because it focuses the minds on what we need to be thinking about.

'This is not going to last forever I have not heard lots of people starting to panic about the impact of coronavirus on food. But I do think is that these sort of shocks will focus our attention on the food security debate.

'In the post-Brexit world there is a lot of concern about unskilled labour, but what coronavirus might do is focus the mind on just how dependent we are on unskilled migrant labour from far-away countries.'

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Mass farming rally among industry events postponed due to outbreak

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