Covid-19 has revealed the fragility of our food systems. Whilst many will suggest that the global pandemic is a one-off shock, you don’t have to look too far back to find the previous shock, and the one before that.
With Covid-19, we are dealing with the latest in a series of disruptions to the food system. It is a stark reminder that we need new interdisciplinary research and decisive action to improve the resilience of our food system to the next big shock, which is inevitably on its way.
In the UK, the food system appears to have weathered the Covid-19 storm based on one measure of food security: availability. Stocks on shelves are almost back to normal. However, the full scale of impacts are only just starting to bubble to the surface.
A drop in food supply is predicted due to the combination of a lack of labour for harvesting, and a lack of confidence in planting for next season, as it is difficult to predict what foods will be in demand. When we look beyond availability as a measure of food security, for example to health, lockdown has seen diets shift towards unhealthy foods with longer shelf lives, with the risk of long-term habit formation.
Where a shock hits the food system is critically important.
Covid-19 was a ‘demand shock’. As we went into lockdown, the food service sector shut down and the retail sector was left to meet demand. No longer able to eat out or at work, consumers became wholly dependent on retailers for their three meals a day, and combined with some initial panic buying, this resulted in empty shelves. However, the food shortage was largely a logistics issue (i.e. getting food to the right places) as we had stocks from Brexit planning, and most trade was able to continue uninterrupted.
In contrast, there is every possibility that the next big shock will be a climate-related ‘production shock’. This would play out very differently to a demand shock like Covid-19.
If food production fails due to extreme weather, less food will be available on the market. But what happens next will depend on market or policy responses to the shock.
For example, a country in a major food-producing region may seek to protect its own food security by implementing an export ban. This could stabilise domestic food prices, but it further reduces the amount of food on the global market, resulting in food price spikes. This invariably hits the poorest the hardest, and we saw in 2007/08 that food price spikes can lead to food riots and political instability.
It’s hard to predict what the next big shock will be, but climate change is very likely to be involved. Our own analysis highlights the potential for multi-breadbasket failure; the chances of extreme weather hitting several major food producing regions of the world at the same time is likely to triple by 2040 . A devastating event that might have occurred every hundred years is more likely to happen every 30 years. There are also several climate-related tipping points that could severely impact the food system .
And then there are other potential shocks, like geopolitics, trade, plant and animal diseases, food safety, resource scarcity and biodiversity decline. Importantly, we need to recognise that these shocks are unlikely to occur on their own, and there is huge potential for cascading risks.
How might a plant disease outbreak interact with a widespread drought and reinforce one another? Or more immediately, how might a second wave of the pandemic interact with a no-deal Brexit and a global recession?
The key question is how do we build resilience to multiple shocks into the food system?
As always with food systems, each country will have its own approach to increasing the resilience of its food supply chains. However, the first priority is to assess the unique set of challenges that a country is facing.
In the UK, for example, we import the vast majority of our fruit and around half of our vegetables, so if a shock disrupted our imports this would have significant ramifications for the nation’s health.
Broadly speaking, there are three major ways to increase resilience of the food system and they all come with costs:
- The first involves building slack into the food system through redundancy, for example by increasing food storage capacity.
- The second is the diversification of the food system, in the hope that a shock will only hit part of a country’s portfolio. This approach goes beyond diversifying crops, livestock, seafood and management practices, and includes diversification of food processing, manufacturing, retail and consumption.
- The third is increasing the resilience of food production to climate change through biology and best practice farming. This year’s low wheat harvest is a case in point. Only 40% of wheat could be planted due to heavy rain, and the droughts and rainfall that followed have produced poor quality crop with potentially 40% lower yields.
A window of opportunity
Interdisciplinary research, in collaboration with government, business and civil society, is central to preparing the food system for future shocks. Collective and decisive action is then required, and the best way to achieve this is to have all stakeholders involved in the research from the outset.
We also need to consider the whole food system when developing interventions, to prevent positive changes in one part of the system from adversely affecting another. For example, diversifying for crops that could boost resilience, that people then don’t want to eat and that go to waste.
Finally, we need to consider if resilience means bouncing back to ‘business as usual’ or if we should set our goals higher.
Disrupting the status quo is arguably the hardest part of food system transformation, so the Covid-19 crisis has created a window of opportunity to build a better food system – one that delivers for resilience, health and sustainability, all at the same time.