Reshaping Food Systems After COVID-19


by Ruerd Ruben, John McDermott, and Inge Brouwer | April 20, 2020

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.

Reassessing Food System Drivers

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:

  • Biophysical and Environment drivers: most countries affected by COVID-19 have limited possibilities for early detection of potential pathogens that cause zoonoses and to unravel the genetic makeup of viruses to assess risks and develop vaccines. Also the potential influence of global warming and deforestation on virus infections needs to be addressed. Open information sharing in a timely matter is considered most critical for staying ahead of viruses.
  • Demographic drivers: fast growing rates of urbanization and crowded neighbourhood in megacities make ‘social distancing’ rather difficult and inhibit early detection and tracing of affected people. In the absence of clean water and soap, it is difficult to keep required hygiene measures. Healthier diets are considered critical to strengthen the immune system. Otherwise, health systems in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC) are notably fragile and have limited capacity to reach poor people, to target vulnerable groups and follow international guidelines to prevent infection, to treat the infected and to protect staff.
  • Infrastructure drivers: important linkages between rural and urban areas are interrupted with strict food safety standards for domestic trade, while export bans and/or import restrictions hinder international trade. This may lead to artificially higher food prices, even when products are not scarce. The closure of Asian garment factories interrupted cotton exports from Tanzania, and food imports and exports are delayed due to strict border controls.
  • Socio-cultural drivers: labour migration and mobility of people represent important virus transmission mechanism. Temporary migrant networks and refugees are particularly vulnerable as the virus follows their interaction patterns. Otherwise, lockdowns break traditional social insurance networks that represent poor people’s main risk-coping strategies. Consequently, the virus makes existing inequality painfully visible and is likely to increase inequality further during infections.
  • Political and Economic drivers: control on the spread of the COVID-19 virus requires strong governance and possibilities to rely on public resources for temporary compensation of unemployed people and small and medium enterprises that are out of business. International cooperation in the fields of health equipment and vaccine development will increase prospects for faster recovery.

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.

Reshaping Food System Components

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:

  • Food Production: In the short run, the COVID-19 virus is expected to have limited effects on primary production; labour availability may be affected, but to a limited extent as social distancing is easier in rural areas. There are, however, substantial risks of interruption of input supplies (seeds, fertilizers) and credit, and scarcity of casual wage labour is likely when travel restrictions remain in place. Crop yields will decrease, unless large-scale input provision schemes are put in place. Peri-urban production of fresh vegetables, poultry, pork and fish could benefit from more permanent labour contracts and sustainable intensification of their production methods.
  • Food Trade: countries that are closing their borders and impose export bans or import restrictions will face larger food deficits and higher food price volatility. It is therefore of critical importance to maintain (inter)national food trade and to support regional coordination of food networks. Transparency about food stocks and open trade regimes could guarantee food security and offset risks of price speculation.
  • Food Demand: many people expect a contraction in food demand, caused by massive layoffs in urban service and manufacturing sectors that led to large-scale unemployment. Cash transfers for income support to (temporarily) unemployed workers can be helpful to maintain food purchasing power, and have proven to be successful in different settings. Key attention should also be given to price control to avoid (temporary) shortages leading to unforeseen price spikes that tend to affect poor people most.
  • Domestic Food Markets: it is expected that local midstream agents responsible for input provision, logistics and processing, and food retail may suffer most from the interruption of domestic trade. Small-scale enterprise and informal markets are, however, critical for guaranteeing access to food for the poorest segments of population. It is likely that interest towards shorter and more transparent supply chains will increase to enable closer quality and safety supervision. Instead of fully regulating informal food markets, opportunities for better social control need to be explored.
  • Food Environment: the COVID-19 crisis had led to a growing recognition of the key role of the state in organizing health care and supporting food markets. State-led programs for keeping health and food systems functioning meet surprisingly high discipline and are generally respected. The importance of school feeding programs and food banks for avoiding exclusion is generally recognized. This may also provide prospects for labelling of unhealthy products and targeting tax regimes towards guiding healthier food choices.
  • Consumer Behaviour: vulnerability to the COVID-19 virus seems to be related to BMI, amongst others. Although the mechanism is not yet fully understood, this may imply that moderation of the intake of (ultra-)processed foods related to risks of overweight is a relevant coping strategy. With lockdowns, we notice a reduction of out-of-home consumption (in fast food restaurants) and an increase in home delivery of meals. These changing food habits can be reinforced to support the transition towards healthier and more sustainable diets.

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.

Reconciling Food System Outcomes

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:

  • Heathy food and balanced and sustainable diets are considered critical to support resilience against virus infections. The societal returns on investment in food safety and better nutrition (‘’One Health’) pay off in terms of lower health costs;
  • Growing poverty may inhibit food system improvement. Supporting employment for jobless people and providing unconditional cash transfers to vulnerable households are major cost-effective strategies to keep food demand in place;
  • Increasing inequality – both within and between countries – may lead to inaction, since poor people and poor countries have limited savings, resources and reserves to invest in structural solutions. The transition towards post-COVID-19 food systems needs an inclusive strategy to guarantee broad and sustained societal support; and
  • Provision of collective services such as clean water and sanitation (WASH) and primary health care is increasingly recognized as an important device in the fight against the rapid spread of virus infections. In a similar vein, the need for collective action within and between countries is based on emerging insights regarding growing interdependence that ask for joint solutions for addressing the challenges of climate, poverty and hunger.

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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