Sustainable Healthy Diets and Covid 19: Building Back Better Food Systems

May 6, 2020 | 1 comment

Covid-19 has exposed the fragility and vulnerability of the food system to external shocks. Sustainable, healthy diets are key to building back better food systems. The pandemic has highlighted our reliance on long and complex supply chains, and just-in-time delivery. It has also highlighted the problems of food insecurity, food poverty and inequality, driven by a highly controlled and centralised industrial food system. Despite this, there are a myriad of organisations working around the clock to feed people with healthy and nutritious foods – beacons of hope. Now is the moment to turn a crisis into an opportunity – with sustainable healthy and culturally relevant diets at the heart of a new food renaissance – reconnecting our food to people and place. In this blog I argue that shorter value chains for fresh produce, culinary diversity and citizen agency are essential ingredients for change.

It is astonishing how quickly the world and our individual lives have changed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The lockdown has given me time to reflect both on the implications of Covid-19 on how we grow, distribute, eat and retail food and given me time to catch up on my reading list! One book I read last week is called ‘Sitopia – How Food Can Save the World’. Its written by Carolyn Steel, who is a London based architect and a leading thinker on food and cities. The word ‘Sitopia’ is derived from the Greek words ‘Sitos’ meaning food and ‘topos’ meaning place – so literally Sitopia meaning food and place. Drawing on insights across many disciplines including philosophy, literature, architecture and science, the book paints a vision for change within our food system and argues that for many peoples, we have forgotten the value of food and that our industrialised productivist food system threatens planetary, human and animal health & wellbeing.  It argues for food decentralisation and the need to reconnect people with food and a sense of place.

So why do I mention this book in terms of Covid-19? As the pandemic emerged, the natural human response was to head for home – our sense of place – with millions of people across the globe heading home. These included people who were stuck overseas and repatriated by their governments and the millions of migrant workers in many Indian or African Cities whose natural reaction was to head to the security of home with their families in the countryside. We are all connected to a sense of place and up until recently and for many centuries, it was our food that reflected that sense of place, culture and community – much of which has since been lost. Localisation & decentralisation – accessing, growing, cooking and preparing of food within our communities has become one of the major new trends during the lockdown.

Covid -19 must be a wake-up call. A call to take a different path and place human and ecological health at the heart of a new, green economic system. I think there is a real opportunity to build back better food systems and to turn a crisis into an opportunity – reconnecting people with food through place, placing healthy sustainable and culturally relevant diets at the heart of the policy and practice response to build new resilient, ‘one health’ food systems.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has obviously shone a light on vulnerability and fragility of both our health and food systems. The pandemic has also reinforced our understanding of the interdependence between planetary, animal, and human health by showing us what happens when we break down the barriers between animals and human populations creating the conditions for new infectious diseases to emerge – those so called zoonotic diseases, such as Ebola, SARS, bird flu, and now COVID-19. ( See my previous blog ‘Covid 19 – Ecological Health, Human Health and Food System Resilience’).  Despite Trumps recent claims, the evidence is clear – habitat loss, biodiversity loss, wildlife trafficking and climate heating increase the risks of pandemics. More than 60% of infectious diseases come from animals.

Covid-19 has revealed the vulnerability of our food systems to shocks – This includes panic buying, a shortage of labour in the fields and the closure of informal markets. In addition, the poorest don’t have access to basic healthcare facilities and millions more are now in food poverty and are going hungry.  According to the UN, the coronavirus crisis will push more than a quarter of a billion people to the brink of starvation unless swift action is taken to provide food and humanitarian relief to the most at-risk regions. In the West we see huge numbers flocking to food banks which can’t cope with demand – and in the UK, where I live, new research by the Food Foundation, has found that the number of households with children going hungry has doubled since lockdown began, with five million people living in households with children have experienced food insecurity since the lockdown began.

In response to this crisis there have been countless examples of communities now working much more closely to protect the most vulnerable – the sense of place and  community endeavour to support and ensure people have access to enough food has been both heart-warming and inspirational, demonstrating the importance of community and local actions to resilience. Transforming our food systems with healthy and sustainable diets at the heart of this transformation is key to building long term resilience. Here I highlight three opportunities to rebuild resilience through healthy and sustainable diets:

1) Need for shorter food value chains – We must look at opportunities to decentralise our food systems and produce a greater proportion of our most healthy and nutritious foods, such as fresh produce, locally. In the UK we import 77% of our fresh fruit and vegetables, which predominantly are sold through of highly centralised retail dominated system – this is mad when we have the capacity to grow much more of this locally, ensuring freshness, optimal nutrient quality and reductions in fresh produce waste ( fresh produce imported over long distances is highly perishable and results in significant wastage).

In other parts of the world (India, Africa, SE Asia) informal markets provide 80% or more of the food to the poorest in society. Many of these markets have been closed forcing people to go hungry, or for others who can afford it, to shop in supermarkets where packaged goods dominate. We need to support these informal markets– they are key to the future provision of healthy, nutritious foods and connect citizens directly with 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.

2)  Diversity, Diversity, Diversity – Diversity in food systems is key to future resilience – diversity of visions, approaches, actors, crops, and culinary diversity. Over the last century there has been a significant erosion of diversity and a move towards monocultures, the commodification of food and power which is concentrated into the hands of a few number of organisations.  – as result there has been a major decline in crop diversity (globally, we now rely on just 6-8 crops to supply 70% of our calories).  Diversity is fundamental to resilience, food and nutritional security and restoring our natural world.

Forgotten crops (sometimes referred to as underutilised or orphan crops) comprise the multitude of species that are currently largely neglected by major research, funding bodies and global food manufacturers/retailers. They have largely been ignored or neglected by advances in technology, policy, advocacy or marketing. They include cereals, grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, fruits, vegetables and roots. Although these species have long been overlooked, interest is growing in their potential to contribute to food and nutritional security and improved livelihood options for subsistence farmers. There are over 20,000 species of edible plants in the world yet fewer than 20 species now provide 90% of our food – A number of which have the potential to yield under a range of soils and climates that unfavourable for, production of the more common staple crops whilst providing nutritionally superior forms of food with a wide range of micro-nutrients and minerals.

3) Citizen Agency – The opportunity to reconnect citizens across the globe with food, whilst restoring traditions and cultures, from birth to end of life, is an opportunity to reconnect citizens with a sense of place.  Schemes which encourage the growing, cooking and preparation of food, whilst ensuring citizens are engaged in food systems decision making, are a powerful driver of citizen behaviour change and have potential in driving healthy, sustainable diets. Reconnecting citizens and reframing the language from consumers who demand, choose or buy food to that of a citizen who can participate in, create and shape food systems is a very powerful frame.( See Food Ethics Council work on Citizenship)  Citizens, Indigenous Peoples and other groups (for example farmer groups) must be more actively engaged in policy making and setting the research agenda, rather than as recipients of it.

This post in part of a series of reflection pieces and commentaries on “Food policy innovation in the COVID-19 crisis”, hosted in the Community for Future Food Policies group curated by Nordic Food Policy Lab. Join the group to contribute to the conversation and to see other posts.


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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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1 Comment

  1. Cathy Smith

    Great Post! Thanks for sharing such beautiful information with us. Please keep sharing.

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