Covid 19 – Ecological Health, Human Health and Food System Resilience

Apr 7, 2020 | 0 comments

The Coronavirus crisis has shone a light on the links between ecological health, animal health and human health. It has also highlighted the vulnerability of our global food systems to such shocks. Healthy ecosystems are key to supporting human health and well-being and building resilience within our food systems. Out of a crisis can come opportunity – an opportunity to rebuild the health of our natural systems, on which our food and health depends. If we are to cope with future shocks to our food system we can’t return business as usual.

It is widely believed that a type of coronavirus found in bats and pangolins is the source of Covid-19 pandemic. It is believed to have jumped from these animals to humans at a wet market in the city of Wuhan, China, in late December 2019. Wet markets are named after the melting ice used to preserve fresh food, as well as the constant washing of the market floors when they are covered in blood from the animals. Diseases which spill from animals to humans –known as zoonotic diseases, are not new. In fact, many of the most significant infectious diseases over the last half century, like Ebola, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS,) and bird flu, are animal in origin. HIV was a zoonotic disease transmitted to humans, from monkeys, in the early part of the 20th century, though it has now mutated to a separate human-only disease. About 75% of emerging infectious diseases today are zoonotic, resulting in, about one billion cases of illness and millions of deaths across the globe every single year. I could not find any recent analysis of the health costs associated with these infectious diseases, which must run into trillions of dollars each year.

A recent literature review going back to 1940 found that food and agriculture drivers were associated with between 25-50% of zoonotic–infectious diseases that emerged in humans, proportions that will likely increase as agriculture expands and intensifies. There is no doubt that both climate change and continued habitat loss will only increase human-animal interactions and conflicts which in turn continue to drive such infections in the future. Scientists agree that preserving intact ecosystems and their biodiversity generally reduces the prevalence of these diseases . The illustration to the left is one that has just been produced by the UN Environment Programme and demonstrates the link between ecological health and Zoonotic diseases.


Ecosystem health underpins human health more broadly

Whilst the links between Covid-19, the wildlife trade and human health are becoming clear, ecosystem health and human health are intricately linked in other multiple complex ways.  Healthy ecosystems support human health and well-being: pollution, eco-toxicity, climate change, food waste & loss, species extinction and resource depletion all undermine the life and community supporting systems which underpin production of food.  Ensuring stable climate, healthy soils, functioning ecosystems and staying within the earth’s environmental limits is essential for meeting societies’ nutritional needs, which in turn  underpin good health and human well-being. Addressing ecological boundaries (soil health, biodiversity, water availability and quality, food waste, shifts in nutrient cycles) is key to addressing the determinants of health and all forms of malnutrition.

Good ecological health will result in multiple health and nutritional benefits. For example, pollinator-dependent food products contribute to healthy diets and nutrition. Pollinators are under threat – sustainable and regenerative forms of agriculture can reduce risk to pollinators by helping to diversify the agricultural landscape and making use of ecological processes as part of food production. Similarly, protecting marine food sources are critical to food security, and a main source of high quality protein for many people, yet some yield-focused, intensive agricultural systems threaten this source of nutrition by polluting waterways and marine water bodies, harming aquatic eco-systems which provide this valuable food source.

Covid 19 – The Need to Build Food Systems Resilience

Covid-19 has shone a light on the fragility and vulnerability of our food system, which has been picked up by many other commentators over recent weeks. I highlight four key areas which will be key to ensuring we build resilience within our food system over the coming years:

1)  Food Security – Global and local supply chain disruptions loom across the world and have already significantly impacted a number of countries. Tim Lang, professor of Food Policy at London City University, in recent article, highlighted the vulnerability of the UK’s  ‘just in time’ food systems which are very vulnerable to any significant interruptions in supply. He highlighted that in the UK we only produce 50% of the food we actually eat, leaving our food supply vulnerable to imports from elsewhere and agricultural production methods which are damaging to the environment and human health. In many countries there have been difficulties in sourcing foods which are healthy and nutritious (fresh produce, fruit and vegetables etc). The UN has already warned that in the weeks still to come protectionist measures by national governments during the coronavirus crisis could provoke food shortages around the world.

Looking into the future, we must look at opportunities to produce a greater proportion of our foods, particularly our most healthy and nutritious foods, locally. In the UK, we import 76% of our fresh vegetables – crazy when many temperate fruit and veg could easily be grown, with the right incentives in place!  80 per cent of the world’s population depends on imports to meet at least part of their food and nutritional requirements. The use of more culturally appropriate and diversified crops, which reduce reliance on 8-10 globally traded crops (wheat, rice, maize etc) which supply 70% of the worlds calories, must also be a key priority. We should, for example, be investing in  orphan and forgotten crops, which can be highly nutritious and are key to improving health, nutritional and resilience outcomes within local markets.

2) Food ( and health) Inequality – At least half of the world’s population, predominantly the poorest and most vulnerable, do not have full coverage of essential health services, according to the World Health Organisation. It is therefore the most vulnerable that are most impacted by Covid-19, whether they live in the UK, US or India. Covid-19 is taking a hold in many countries where many people are already in food poverty – those households that area already struggling to afford sufficient, healthy and nutritious foods. In the UK alone, recent research by the Food Foundation, suggested 860,000 people were food insecure before the crisis and that some 17 million are now at risk of food insecurity following Covid-19. Food banks and food redistribution charities, such as FareShare, have not been able to cope with demand.

Looking into the future, governments need to address the root causes (determinants) of inequality. Food should be a public good, with households supported by government investing in social infrastructure and safety nets, for the public interest. Healthy, nutritious and sustainable foods need to be affordable for the most vulnerable in society. More emphasis could for example be placed on social protection programmes such as vouchers, cash, school feeding, or food supplement programmes.

3) The need to connect citizens with local markets – Many small scale, artisan and specialised producers, particularly those supplying smaller retailer or food service outlets  or foods to informal markets ( which provide 80% of foods in parts of India for example) are struggling to get foods to market. Many food systems have become highly centralised over the last few decades, with a significant proportion of foods, which are highly commoditised, being purchased through a handful of big supermarkets ( 70% of food in the UK is brought through the top 4 supermarkets). Whilst in general supermarkets have coped with the crisis to date, Covid -19 has exposed the vulnerability of this centralised system to future shocks.

Whilst we can all play a role, as citizens, in supporting local producers, more needs to be done by governments to facilitate the decentralisation of food markets, supporting local growers, producers and informal markets, around the world. Our agricultural subsidy systems and a health system focussed on preventative, rather than curative health, could incentivise such local forms of food production. Governments can promote the right enabling environment and technical help to develop localised production and consumption systems that would attract investment.

4) Build resilience into integrated national food and farming strategies – With time, governments will need to learn the lesson from Covid-19 and ensure they build food system resilience to future shocks ( whether that is as a result of other pandemics, climate change or other unknown disruptions).  Governments must now move to take an integrated approach to food and agricultural policy, with sustainable, healthy diets a key element of these. A siloed approach to policy making across many national governments results in disjointed and fragmented policies, which don’t tackle root opportunities for sustainable and dietary healthy solutions.  Traditional jurisdictional responsibilities between agriculture, water, health, trade, international development, employment, education, and social welfare (protection) departments are significant barriers to building resilience.

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Written By Tasting the Future

Mark Driscoll is a freelance sustainable food systems consultant focussing on food systems transformation initiatives. He works with businesses, funders and civil society organisations on a range of food systems projects. This includes research work, strategy & policy development, project management and media work. He is a passionate advocate and champion of food systems transformation which gives citizens access to healthy and nutritious foods within environmental limits.

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