How to reimagine our food systems for a post-COVID world
The COVID-19 crisis is a ‘stress test’ for our global food systems – and they are failing. Today we see farmers dumping milk and ploughing crops back into their fields, even as stores empty and the need for food assistance surges. We see export restrictions and price hikes as experts predict dramatic increases in malnutrition globally. These failures demand that we ask not only how to repair this damage, but how to fundamentally reimagine food systems to make them more nourishing, resilient and sustainable.
For decades, thinking and strategies around food have developed in silos, with little coordination between communities working on nutrition, agriculture, food, environment, water, health, climate, employment, trade or transport. This has generated serious problems – from policies that provide cheap calories but lead to high rates of diet-related diseases, to market innovations that prioritize efficiency above all and production systems that contribute to climate change and biodiversity loss.
The pandemic has shown that sectors that seem distinct do not operate independently. Though still being investigated, COVID-19 likely originated in wild animals sold in open food markets. The virus easily jumped to humans because farmers had cleared and settled large areas of natural habitat, increasing interactions of wildlife with people, including as food. Sanitary standards at markets were poorly regulated, while rapid transport between densely populated cities spread the virus globally. Now whether infected people become seriously ill or die depends on their underlying health and nutrition, as well as their access to healthcare, sanitation and adequate housing. Indeed, COVID-19 is a story of multiple systems impacting each other, triggering a host of unintended consequences impossible to understand, let alone manage, without looking at them together.