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Five COVID-19 Reflections from a Food System Perspective—and How We Could Take Action

Daniel Skaven Ruben — Independent Consultant


As confirmed cases of COVID-19 increased throughout the world, the immediate instinct of many people was to ensure that they had enough food. The images of empty grocery store shelves and closed restaurants are stark and important reminders of how much we depend on our food system and how central food is in our lives. We define ourselves through what we eat, and the food we eat every day literally becomes who we are.

As the COVID-19 crisis spreads across borders and continents, we have an opportunity to reflect on the transformation needed if we want to develop a food system that nourishes all people, regenerates and sustains the environment, and enables the resilience and flourishing of culture and community. Here are five reflections:

  1. It is important to recognize that the COVID-19 crisis started with a food choice. Sometime in late 2019 meat from a bat or a snake was sold at a food market and five months later the entire global economy is in turmoil affecting billions of people. If we ever needed proof that our food choices matter, we have it with COVID-19. The fact that the disease likely began in a market for wild animals is also a warning that we cannot continue encroaching and exploiting the remaining natural areas of the world. There are heavy consequences to pay if we do not find a balance with nature that is sustainable and recognize the value of the natural world.
  2. Empty grocery shelves are not just the result of the human tendency to hoard in times of danger, but an important reminder that our food supply chains are easily disrupted and many of our food systems lack resilience and redundancy. Many parts of the world rely on highly centralized systems, at the expense of strong local and regional food systems that could provide better buffering capacity when needed. We are in a global food system, a reality that will not change. However, we can design this global economy in a way that supports local and regional resilience and leverages the advantages of global interconnectedness to mitigate future shocks. This will require a complete redesign of our subsidy systems, which in most countries effectively only support large commodity-oriented agriculture and fail to support the small- and medium-sized agriculture that produces the diversity of foods needed for a healthy diet. This may also require us to create new multilateral agreements that ensure timely and efficient trade during times of crisis.
  3. The COVID-19 crisis has further exposed the limitations of a food system that fails to adequately nourish the majority of the world’s population. Today’s food system prioritizes cheap calories and high yield, but unintentionally promotes obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease among many other diseases, all of which compromise immune health. Citizens with compromised immune systems such as the 30+ million Americans with Type-2 diabetes, or the 820 million people worldwide who cannot obtain adequate nutrition, will disproportionally suffer the lethal consequences of COVID-19.
  4. As the world economy slides into a recession, the agricultural production and grocery retail sectors appear well-positioned to weather the storm because people still need to eat and will prioritize their spending on food. A resilient and sustainable food system, including stronger local and regional food systems, can ensure economic opportunity for significant numbers of people and enable a faster recovery.
  5. In times of crisis, small- and medium-sized enterprises in most parts of the world play a critical role in ensuring that poor and vulnerable people, who are always the ones that suffer the most, continue to have employment as well as access to food. As food markets and restaurants close across the world, millions are now out of work. Better mechanisms are needed to support these small- and medium-sized enterprises.

We have an opportunity to reflect on the transformation needed if we want to develop a food system that nourishes all people, regenerates and sustains the environment, and enables the resilience and flourishing of culture and community.

The impacts of the COVID crisis will likely require a rebuilding of economies across the world. This is both a challenge and an opportunity to rebuild something that serves people better, and will require both vision and commitment at local, regional and global levels. Some key and actionable steps include:

  1. Dramatically shifting dietary patterns towards more healthy, protective foods such as fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, fish and whole grains. This will require significant changes in our subsidy systems, procurement practices, and education programs. If we are successful, this will dramatically lower health care costs and help us weather the next pandemic with healthier individuals and stronger immune systems.
  2. Supporting strong local and regional food systems in order to increase resilience and redundancy. This can be done through more effective government support, leveling the playing field for small- and medium-sized enterprises, and building in collective procurement practices that support foods sourced locally and regionally.
  3. Reducing the burden of our food system on the environment by stopping and reversing the encroachment of agriculture on biodiversity areas, and preventing the exploitation of wild animals for human consumption. By shifting towards more plant-forward dietary patterns, we can lower the risk of further zoonotic disease transmissions, and thus pandemics.
  4. Increasing transparency and coordination across value chains and national borders in order to ensure that food is efficiently distributed and barriers such as export bans based on fear and logistic bottlenecks resulting from poor coordination do not lead to hunger and hikes in food prices.

The Rockefeller Foundation has long engaged and led the conversation on how to advance a more nourishing and sustainable food system. Last year the Foundation launched a Food System Vision Prize that asked the simple question, “How can we envision a more nourishing and regenerative food system for 2050?”. Over 1,300 organizations from 119 countries answered this call, and their innovative efforts can be viewed online. The learnings from the Prize are an incredible source of ideas for food system communities everywhere as we rebuild and reimagine a more sustainable and equitable post-COVID world.

The most important lesson from this crisis is hopefully the recognition that since we are all part of one interconnected and interdependent social, environmental, and economic system, we cannot solve any of our major problems without collective action supported by a common vision and a system mindset.