17 June 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is a symptom of a broken food system

The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of our food supplies – but building a more resilient system could provide a path to recovery.

Tomato seedlings growing at home In the city. They are growing in a tray next to a window which overlooks a city urban area.

By Prof Peter Jackson and Prof Duncan Cameron, Directors of the Institute for Sustainable Food

The coronavirus pandemic is a symptom of a broken food system. From the interaction between humans and wildlife believed to have caused the outbreak, to the empty supermarket shelves that marked the beginning of lockdown, and the inherent difficulties of returning to crowded cafes and restaurants, the fragility of global food supply and distribution chains has been laid bare. But rebuilding a more resilient and sustainable system isn’t just a vital part of preventing future crises. As the government looks beyond lockdown, investing in food security could provide a path towards our collective ‘green’ recovery.

For many of us, among the first changes we experienced as Covid-19 spread was a rare inability to buy everything we wanted from the supermarket. The rapid shift to home-cooked meals and spikes in demand for staples like pasta and flour exposed the undeniable complexity of supply chains as never before.

Empty egg shelves in a grocery store or supermarket

This globalised system has enabled wealthy nations like ours to enjoy diverse diets of out-of-season produce for decades – offering the illusion of food security. But the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated just how vulnerable we are to even short-term disruptions – which are only likely to become more frequent as the climate crisis accelerates. 

For the sake of our health, our environment and our national security, the government must rebalance our relationship with the natural world and the other countries on which we currently depend so heavily.

But so far during this pandemic, we have seen many world leaders adopting food policies that only make matters worse. Vietnam, the world’s third-largest exporter of rice, temporarily banned international shipments of this staple crop to protect its own domestic supplies. Russia, meanwhile, continues to restrict exports of grains, and Egypt has temporarily banned exports of legumes, all in an effort to facilitate domestic food security in the short term. But at what cost in the longer term? 

There is no such thing as food security in one country. Every facet of the system – from fertilisers to packaging – relies on international trading networks. Protectionist policies only threaten spikes in prices and prompt tit-for-tat restrictions that undermine food security, rather than enhance it. 

As our negotiators continue to pursue post-Brexit trade deals via videoconference, the UK has an opportunity to advocate for cooperation over competition, sustainability over environmental exploitation, helping to protect global food supplies and ensure the resilience of the systems that produce and distribute our food. Our government must encourage trading partners to improve their standards – rather than compromising on food safety, animal welfare and environmental protections in ways that undercut British farmers. This is an opportunity to use our international purchasing power for good - while increasing our contribution of quality exports.

Back home, the government must act fast to deliver immediate food security for all, and begin increasing domestic capacity to build resilience for the long-term.

As job losses bite and food banks report rocketing demand, we’ve seen an admirable surge in effort from voluntary organisations, communities and industry to prevent hunger - but ministers need to do more. They must urgently provide the financial safety net people need to put food on the table, and the funding local authorities require to support them. They must help charities facing cash shortfalls and reduce the bureaucratic barriers that prevent them from accessing surplus food. Investing in community organisations and food cooperatives will be crucial to people’s health and wellbeing as we recover from this crisis.

Woman wearing a mask in a supermarket and gloves. She is picking up an apple.

While the pandemic has plunged far too many into hardship, it also sparked a newfound popular respect for poorly paid keyworkers, including supermarket staff and fruit pickers as well as NHS staff and care workers. But it is time the government recognised that work such as fruit picking is not just essential, but highly skilled. 

It is unrealistic to expect job seekers to turn up at farm gates and save the harvest. The migrants who work in our fields and greenhouses have often spent years honing their ability to pick our most fragile produce with care and lightning speed. Ministers should invest in training UK workers to undertake this vital work and ensure all agricultural workers receive the decent pay, conditions and professional respect they deserve, to create quality jobs and prevent good food from rotting on the vine.

Once this season’s harvest is secured, the government must support growers to ensure next year’s is more substantial. With just 16 per cent of fruit and 53 per cent of vegetables sold in the UK currently grown domestically, farmers must be incentivised to grow more, and barriers to smaller urban producers must be removed. 

High-tech urban growing techniques, combined with the restoration of lost allotment space and the repurposing of some public land, could create skilled jobs, build more resilient supply chains and make our cities better places to live.

Overhead shot of a woman weeding raised beds in a vegetable garden with a blue handled hoe. Strawberry patch, carrots, lettuce, salad plants, beetroot, radish, onions, chive, chard and kale.

There is huge scope for the public sector’s procurement clout to be used to support these local producers and rebuild the nation’s health, with schools, hospitals and public buildings serving nutritious meals based on local, sustainable fruit and veg.

This kind of joined-up approach should lay the foundations for a fundamental rethink of our food system. If we are to build a truly sustainable food future, the best evidence shows we must shift to a more circular economy. That means changing the way we produce, shop and eat through a combination of taxation, legislation, educational and behaviour change initiatives. Only a coordinated approach across communities, local authorities and national and international governments will achieve long-term food security and restore fragile ecosystems as we face increasing climate extremes.

The coronavirus pandemic started with a broken food system. But by building equitable, local and resilient food chains through investment in skilled work, fairer trade and greener cities, the government can secure our recovery and help to prevent the next crisis.

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