Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Systems

Food narratives in a time of crisis: implications for risk perception and responsibility for food security

Changes in UK consumer food behaviours during the COVID-19 pandemic have been widely reported in traditional and social media.

Two prevalent, early narratives have been empty supermarket shelves and increasing reliance on food banks. These food narratives matter because they (1) influence public risk perception; (2) highlight concerns about who holds responsibility for food distribution in times of crisis; and (3) shape the possible long-term implications of COVID-19 and other crises for food systems.


In the early-days maelstrom of the COVID-19 pandemic, supply-side disruption was the dominant narrative, prompting demand-side panic buying.1-3 This narrative largely reinforced pre-existing narratives regarding the failure of the food system.4-6 In a national survey conducted in April, nearly half of respondents reported being more worried about food than they were before the crisis.7 Both market analysts, Nielsen and Kantar, reported record-level grocery sales in the UK as consumers stocked ‘pandemic pantries’ in  early March.8,9 However, whilst the initial stages of the COVID-19 response created some unavoidable changes in food demand (e.g. due to a shift away from the service sector and preparation for possible self-isolation), there was and continues to be limited empirical evidence of supply-side constraints.10 Yet some continue to call for strong government interventions to facilitate localised supply chains and self-reliance,11 despite pleas from UN agencies including the WHO, FAO, and WTO not to adopt restrictive measures that may exacerbate food insecurity and malnutrition.12 Moreover, there is evidence that current local food production cannot meet consumer demand,13 and it is unclear whether localised supply chains would be less vulnerable or align well with consumer preferences. This narrative therefore warrants further scrutiny. 


Another narrative has been the increasing reliance on food banks, which reported a spike in demand, stemming from both economic and physical obstacles to food access (e.g. some could not or did not want to go into a supermarket, and could not get a delivery because slots were filled for several weeks).14 The Food Foundation has reported almost a fifth of households with children have been unable to access enough food in the past five weeks.15 In contrast, the abrupt reduction in demand from the catering sector has led to large quantities of fruit, vegetables, milk, and other perishable goods that cannot easily be repackaged for the retail sector, being wasted16 or redirected to food charities. COVID-19 has revealed the necessity and effectiveness of existing community food networks: donating, distributing and delivering food, and also the frailty and isolation within the UK population.


In terms of public risk perception, early narratives regarding empty supermarket shelves were self fulfilling and only served to worsen the situation, especially for vunerable populations. A more strategic approach to risk communication would have enabled a multi-sectoral approach to preparedness and a  coordinated response to the COVID-19 hazard on the food system, potentially preventing this outcome. Robust decisions about risk management and desired behavioural changes rely on an accurate understanding of public perceptions of the risk.17 However, the way risk is perceived, individually or collectively, is highly heterogeneous and contextually dependent. It is shaped not only by the emotional and cultural interpretations of peoples’ personal experiences, but also influenced by the emotional reaction and experiences of trusted others that are observed directly or indirectly, such as those portrayed by the media. The latter has exerted an even greater influence on public perception under the conditions of a ‘mass lockdown’ during the outbreak: opportunities to acquire experience directly have been severely inhibited, while competing and conflicting media stories as well as misinformation about risks associated with COVID-19 have proliferated. The emergence and persistence of certain media narratives over others, and the order in which this happens, is an influential determinant of collective risk perception, and hence subsequent judgment of the effectiveness of the UK’s management of COVID-19. 


When parts of the population are not served by the market, this raises questions about whether the state has an ethical and political responsibility to step in to fill the gaps. The Yellowhammer document released by the government in September 2019 outlined contingency plans for disruptions under a no-deal Brexit, and coincidentally acknowledged the impact of similar shocks on the supply chain.18 It stated that food shortages were not expected to occur in the UK, but that there would be a reduction in ‘availability and choice of products’ and an increase in price, which ‘could impact vulnerable groups.’18 Presaging the early narrative surrounding food and COVID-19, the Yellowhammer document also stated, ‘There is a risk that panic buying will cause or exacerbate food supply disruption.’18 In response to a question posed in July 2019, the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has stated that the responsibility for the supply of food and drink to the population in times of crisis (with some exceptions, e.g. schools and care settings) lies with the private sector,19 thereby shifting responsibility for what could amount to significant market failures. According to public law, when the state transfers responsibility for public good provision to the market, and the market cannot reach parts of the population, the state is obligated to step in and cover gaps.20 If supermarkets are being relied upon to prevent hunger, that service must reach all those in need. If they are not able to do so, it is the government’s responsibility to introduce new measures (e.g. Scottish Government has begun to roll out a food parcel delivery service for vulnerable and low-income households21). It is not the responsibility of food charities to fill this gap, although their readiness to do so has been remarkable.


Narratives may also shape the possible long-term implications of COVID-19 for food systems, such as threat to food production due to restrictions on movement of farm workers.22 An exploration of changing risk perceptions has been absent so far from current analyses around the COVID-19 response. Surveillance of food narratives on traditional and social media could provide a useful, real-time sentinel tool to identify signals of early risks to the food system resulting from COVID-19 or other crises. Integrating the outputs of these tools into a broader risk-based framework to inform risk assessment and foresighting methodologies, enables further opportunities to improve anticipatory governance and emergency preparedness for food security threats beyond COVID-19. There is an urgent need to develop, implement, and encourage uptake of concrete risk management strategies, a process that will require a clearer delineation of the responsibilities of the government and private sector in building a resilient and fair food system. 


Authors:  Lindsay M. Jaacks, Peter Alexander, Lisa Boden, Alfred Gathorne-Hardy, Jonathan Hillier, Geraldine McNeill, Dominic Moran, Kirsteen Shields, Geoff Simm of the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security, University of Edinburgh.



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