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COVID-19 and food systems

How to build food system resilience so as to prepare for future shocks (of any type)?

The COVID-19 pandemic had (and still has) a substantial impact on our food systems in many different ways and has highlighted the need for radical change. For example, COVID-19 led to reduced production because of workforce shortages, farmers who were confronted with less or difficult access to inputs, disruptions in processing and packaging due to lockdowns and illness, and constrained accessibility and affordability of food. While the COVID-19 pandemic led to an increased number of people seeking help from food banks, the food aid sector struggles to provide those people with enough (fresh) foods because of closures in the catering industry and reduced supplies from supermarkets. Simultaneously, food systems, in particular industrial agriculture systems, also impacted the spreading of COVID-19. For example, working and housing conditions in meat processing plants and slaughterhouses were problematic with regard to disease spreading. Moreover, COVID-19 increases the risk to become severely ill for people who are malnourished.

"In our quest for efficiency we have lost national and local control over our food systems, which is illustrated by the COVID-19 crisis."

The strong and alarming interlinkages between COVID-19 and food systems, as described above, require us to raise a key question: ‘How can we build food system resilience to prepare for future shocks (of any type)?’ This question, and in particular the role of Research and Innovation (R&I) herin, was discussed during two online meetings with the European Commission and the EU Think Tank (EU-TT) of the FIT4FOOD2030 project.

Diversity and the importance of the regional and local level

An important insight during the meetings was the need for diversity and the importance of the regional and local scale for building food system resilience: ‘’In our quest for efficiency we have lost national and local control over our food systems, which is illustrated by the COVID-19 crisis’’ (André Laperrière, EU-TT member). Often, discussions about food systems are very general, but we also know there are no silver bullet solutions. Therefore, the importance of investigating how we can strengthen the national and local components of food systems was highlighted. The aim should not be to to create one food system that is better than it is now, but ‘’to create resilient food environments at the local scale, where also in times of crises citizens can find alternatives’’ (Carolin Callenius, EU-TT member).

The need for a paradigm shift: building collective intelligence

The need for radical change in order to make our food systems more resilient also brings risks (such as increasing food prices and associated affordability challenges), and, as such, a need to manage those risks differently. This requires stimulation of learning processes and building ‘‘collective intelligence’’ (Patrick Caron, EU-TT member) at all different levels (from global to local). Most of the decisions that need to be made relate to complex issues. Those decisions rely on our capacity to understand and analyze R&I processes and to interact with different stakeholders so as to better understand why change is not (yet) happening as well as to truly move forward while remaining accountable. In other words, there is a need for a paradigm shift with regard to the solutions that we are proposing and the R&I approaches that we are using. Transformative and transdisciplinary R&I approaches are key and need to be incentiviced by changing existing research funding mechanisms. Moreover, to utilize the potential of R&I in building food system resilience, there is a crucial role for research communities to contradict the dangerous tendency of some actors to consider science only as ‘’just another opinion’’ (Gerda Verburg, EU-TT member). The communicative and collaborative part of science is highly important, especially when it is about complex issues such as food system transformation, and more researchers need to be challenged to be reflexive and to translate complicated issues into day-to-day language.

"It is a matter of guiding and stimulating this change with the right approaches, tools and instruments."

In sum, R&I has a key role in building food system resilience and in guiding food system governance innovation processes to find a new balance between managing risks and remaining accountable. Radical change requires radical changes in mind-sets, among researchers, but also among policy makers and society in general. The good news: ‘’it seems a change in mind-sets is already starting to happen. So, now it is a matter of guiding and stimulating this change with the right approaches, tools and instruments’’ (Gerda Verburg, EU-TT member).

Written by Alanya den Boer, PhD Candidate and City Lab Coordinator within the FIT4FOOD2030 project


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