But as we rebuild from this crisis, we must not mistake this resilience for proof that our existing food system is sustainable. On the contrary: the current system is broken.
The system is not working for British farmers, whose incomes are squeezed by the buying power of major supermarkets. It does not work for our fruit and vegetable pickers, many of whom are employed seasonally on low wages in poor working conditions. Nor does it work for us, the consumers, who are incentivised to buy low-quality produce lacking in nutritional value.
The existing system certainly does not work for our planet, which wears the carbon footprint of 80% of the UK’s food being imported. With so little attention paid to seasonality, supermarket shelves are packed all year round with fruit and vegetables sourced from all over the world. This system does not even benefit the producers around the world whose food ends up on our shelves, but who earn a fraction of the profits, the rest creamed off by middlemen along the supply chain.
For too long, we have viewed this ultra-globalised model of food supply as the only model. I have been fortunate to have had a career has taken me all around the world and exposed me to many different food cultures, from Hong Kong to Tokyo, and now to London. Despite so much variety in cuisines, our detachment from the food we eat seems to be an almost universal experience. The hustle and bustle of cities means that convenience seems to take precedence over all other concerns.
But there is another way. What’s needed is a positive movement to change how we think about food. By bringing the farm closer to the table, we can repair our relationship with the natural world and achieve true sustainability in our food systems.
The key will be learning to source food locally and seasonally. Ask yourself this: can you tell when the fruit and vegetables you eat are in season? Some polls suggest that fewer than one in ten Brits can answer that question. A worryingly low number, but one which is purely a symptom of how we are conditioned to view food: as timeless products available all year round.
Our food system will only change if consumer habits shift towards a more sustainable way of eating. But if we don’t know even know what a sustainable way of eating looks like, how can that happen? The answer is education.
I was fortunate enough to grow up outside of a big city. Our food was rooted in the place we lived and an understanding of seasonality came naturally to me. It’s an understanding that I have tried to impart on my own kids, but I know that for many, particularly those living in cities, it has to be learned. We all have a responsibility to educate ourselves wherever possible to help us make sustainable and seasonal choices when buying our food – myself included.
For Britain, the need to change habits quickly is especially pressing. From a food perspective, Brexit risks shifting the balance of power even further away from local producers. Ambitious trade deals invite difficult trade-offs, particularly in agriculture. The price of striking a deal with New Zealand, for example, will likely be cheap lamb flooding the UK market and undercutting many homegrown producers. Other countries will seek similar market access for their food products to the detriment of any notion of seasonality.
My own effort at rebalancing our habits has been to launch a farm-to-table business, starting with my Notting Hill deli, which will support fantastic British farmers producing world-class organic food. In doing so, I hope to help show people the breadth of seasonal produce that is on our doorstep, when to buy it and how to cook it.
We will only change habits if we build a movement of people yearning to reconnect with the natural world. Together we can learn to eat local, eat seasonal and celebrate the food around us. Only then will we be able to build a more sustainable food system for our planet, our farmers and our children.