Read more A4NH research and perspectives on coronavirus and the ongoing global pandemic.
The current COVID-19 pandemic puts high pressure on the reliability and performance of food systems. Due to lockdowns, agri-food supply chains are interrupted and disconnected with food demand, whereas layoffs affect purchasing power for food demand. This may lead to 20-25 million more people suffering from poverty and malnutrition. The present crisis overwhelmingly shows the reality of the worries many of us have about current food systems and strongly confirms the need to fundamentally reshape their organization.
This crisis also provides us with lessons on how to cope with global stagnation and offers some new insights on how to deal with these challenges and how we could possibly reduce these risks in the near future. While most attention is now given to alleviating the immediate effects of COVID-19 for human suffering and health systems, it is also important to start thinking about likely implications for poverty, nutrition and food systems. Frequent shocks and imbalances between the production, distribution and consumption sides of the food system increasingly show tensions between system components and trade-offs between system outcomes.
We will therefore rely on the framework developed by the High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE, 2017) of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) that structures food systems in three key dimensions: (1) external drivers that influence the global food system performance, (2) core food system components that shape the interactions between food supply and demand, and (3) food system outcomes that indicate how safe, healthy, sustainable and affordable diets can be reinforced and sustained.
In this blog, we will outline that all these dimensions are simultaneously influenced in one way or another by the current COVID-19 pandemic and therefore we need to better understand their interactions in order to identify how a strategic response could be formulated to adequately reshape future food systems.
The emergence and spread of the COVID-19 virus takes place under a set of particular circumstances that need to be understood in order to restrict its expansion and/or reduce its impact on health and food systems. We identify five strategic drivers that play a role:
Dealing adequately with the interplay between these external drivers is particularly important to enable equitable mitigation of the devasting effects of the COVID-19 virus on food systems, and to guarantee that structural responses reinforce the effectiveness of policy interventions.
The COVID-19 virus also has a decisive influence on the internal organization of the food system in LMICs. The availability, access and affordability of healthy diets for poor people depends on smoothly operating interfaces between the production, the distribution and the consumption of food, and the adequate functioning of market channels and institutional rules and regulation that govern exchanges in the food system. We outline six key areas where reshaping the food system might be helpful to counteract the impact of COVID-19:
Reshaping the interactions between the food system components outlined above can be a helpful strategy toward equitable food demand and integrated food supply, that recognizes the importance of access to healthy and safe food by poor people and pays due attention to the conditions for enhancing efficient and sustainable agri-food supply chains coordination. The growing recognition of the mediating role of public policies could support private rules and standards that mark a new era for comprehensive food governance.
Food systems generate different – sometimes contradictory – outcomes in terms of safe and healthy diets, sustainable and resilient production, or inclusiveness for smallholder farmers and poor (urban) consumers. These trade-offs need to be recognized and then can be better addressed simultaneously to guarantee that contradictions are overcome. Food systems have to address four major challenges in the wake of COVID-19:
While working on each of these challenges is already complicated, it becomes even more difficult to give attention to possible trade-offs. Fortunately, there are also important synergies that permit individual and societal resilience to speed up and thus enable simultaneous progress in different key areas.
The outbreak and spread of the COVID-19 virus makes the shortcomings of our current food system – often described in international reports – painfully clear. The lockdowns also make visible the positive effect food systems can have on environmental sustainability, and the importance of behavioral change in greenhouse gas emissions can no longer be denied. Combined with an already growing feeling of "being fed up" with present food systems and the call for radical change, the crisis provides opportunities to carry out a "re-set" of our food systems, to determine what is important and what is not, to revalue the role of public goods, to reconsider "basic income" for all, etc.
The COVID-19 crisis also creates new challenges for food systems, since they are both a cause and a consequence of the pandemic. Going from understanding to the actual reshaping of food systems challenges us to think about access to safe food and healthy diets in terms of public goods. Moreover, food systems provide the linchpin between "push" factors that shape food production and supply and "pull" factors that influence consumer choice and civic behaviour. We need adequate interaction between both aspects to guarantee effective responses. Finally, adequately coping with the risks of virus infections and developing publicly available vaccines requires collective action at all levels, between people, business and government. Hopefully, food systems transformations will enter during a new era of policy engagement, international alliances, and multilateral cooperation.
Ruerd Ruben is Professor, Impact Assessment for Food Systems, at Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and serves on A4NH's Planning and Management Committee. John McDermott is Director, A4NH. Inge D. Brouwer is Associate Professor, Food and Nutrition Security at WUR and leads A4NH research on Food Systems for Healthier Diets.
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