Covid 19 is Accelerating Food Sustainability Trends: Eight to Watch

Jun 4, 2020 | 0 comments

The term ‘black swan’ was popularised by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable”. Nassim used the term to describe large-scale disruptive events that are difficult to predict yet have massive global impacts. The Covid-19 pandemic is such an unfolding black swan event with devasting impacts being felt across communities in many parts of the world, including the tragic loss of life and economic disruption. With hindsight, we perhaps should have seen this coming, given our onslaught on the natural world and the increasing emergence of other Zoonotic diseases, such as Ebola, Zars and HIV – unfortunately these events, by their very nature, are too easily dismissed as too far-fetched. History tells us that black swan events like Covid-19, accelerates the pace of change we experience – and this pace of change is going to significantly reshape or accelerate key sustainability trends within our food system.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt the production, distribution and consumption of foods in many ways. The closing of borders, consumers stockpiling food out of fear of shortages, a shortage of migrant farm workers, ques at foodbanks and citizens who are rethinking how they shop for, cook food, and the types of food they eat.

For the food sector, including food and drink businesses, the pandemic should serve as an opportunity to analyse their resiliency to future shocks (such as climate change) and to shifting citizen behaviours. Whilst there is a business imperative there is also a moral and ethical imperative for businesses to ensure business models and practices support resiliency, build food security and tackle the systemic barriers and opportunities towards healthy, fair, sustainable and resilient food systems.  One thing is certain, Covid-19 will only accelerate transformation across the food sector and whether we are citizens, businesses, investors, the health community or governments, we all have a role to play.

It was towards the end of 2019 that I highlighted in my blog, ‘Sustainable Food trends in 2020 – Ten to watch,  the key trends that were key ones to watch out for in 2020. Some of these, such as ‘Mindful Eaters’, ‘Power of Plants’ or the use of ‘Smart Technology’ are only likely to accelerate as a result of the pandemic. Below I set out eight Covid-19 sustainable food trends I think will have a significant impact in a post Covid world:

1. Immune system boosting foods and diets – There are signs that citizens are increasingly making the link between gut and immune health with an increase in the purchase of probiotics for example. Recent research by MMR found that immunity was the top health concern for people in China and South Africa. There is also a large body of evidence highlighting that diets based on more plants, including vegetables, nuts and wholegrains, combined with lifestyle choices can have an anti-inflammatory effect and can boost immunity. Ingredients that claim to support sleep and mental wellness also seem to be gaining more traction in recent months. For more information on the links between gut and soil health visit this blog.

2. Digitalisation & Personalisation in Nutrition –Covid-19 disproportionately impacts on those suffering from the triple burden of malnutrition (obesity, hunger and micro-nutrient deficiencies). According to the UN, the coronavirus crisis will push more than a quarter of a billion people to the brink of starvation and evidence is emerging that obesity-related conditions seem to worsen the effect of the virus.  Over the coming months, expect to see increasing focus on lifestyle medicines and foods that focus on pre-emptive care – the optimisation of diets that meet specific nutritional needs of vulnerable groups, including children, the elderly, athletes or people with other medical conditions. Opportunities across technology, data and food will facilitate more personalized forms of nutrition helping citizens make more informed nutrition choices to meet their own needs.

3. Plant-based Foods – During the last few years we have already witnessed a significant shift to more plant-based eating and I expect this shift to accelerate. Sales for plant based and meat-alternative products have increased during lockdown with global sales of global plant-based meat alternatives showing growth of about 17% this year. The crisis has highlighted the links between animal and human health in several ways. In the US for example, almost  half the current Covid-19 hotspots in the US are linked to meat processing plants. Covid-19 is also believed to have jumped from animals to humans at a wet market in the city of Wuhan, China, which is likely to play into the current trend towards more flexitarian diets – meat eaters who are likely to shift even more toward plant-based products. Fruit, vegetables and legumes will also benefit from consumer interest in foods that promote health and wellbeing.

4. Shorter Value Chains – There has been significant attention, scrutiny and debate on the resilience of our global commodity chains and centralised distribution networks in the light of the pandemic. Already we are witnessing a significant debate about the opportunity Covid-19 provides 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. Expect to see much more citizen demand for more local foods, which ensures freshness, optimal nutrient quality and reductions in fresh produce waste (fresh produce imported over long distances is highly perishable and results in significant wastage). We are already seeing some governments responding to the ‘localisation’ agenda amidst the COVID-19 –  the United Arab Emirates for example is pushing to transform food production, by investing in more indoor farms, as a way of reducing dependency on the 80% of food which is imported.

5. Food Circularity – Farmers have been forced to through away or destroy huge quantities of food – fresh produce, milk and meats as a result of the closure of many of the food service customers. There is strong anecdotal evidence that in many countries where a lockdown is in place, waste is currently at an all-time high. Market closures across Africa, including Zimbabwe, Kenya and South Africa have cut off farmers distribution networks with fresh produce perishing within fields. The need for a more resilient, circular and low-carbon economic food system is as relevant today as it has ever been. Expect to see much more focus on regenerative agriculture and closed loop nutrient systems for example.

Covid-19 has presented packaging challenges which will also need to be addressed. The International Food Information Council Foundation stated that 4 out of 10 people are reducing the purchase of fresh, unpackaged foods and buying more plastic-wrapped produce due to fears of viral contamination. Evidence is also emerging of a significant uptake in the use of plastic packaging by fresh produce producers, as a result.

6. Food Worker Conditions – Food workers (farm workers, migrant workers and those working in processing/retail/food service etc.) are amongst those most at risk from economic disruption in food value chains. In many areas food workers face insecurity and low wages. The International Labour Organization ( ILO)  estimates that most jobs do not ensure sufficient levels of income for workers to afford adequate food for themselves and their family. Expect more attention on the need to implement and strengthen a range of exiting instruments  to improve human rights and working conditions – The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Conventions of the ILO, for example.

7. Reconnecting citizens with food – The Covid lockdown has resulted a huge rise in numbers engaged in food – home baking/cooking and vegetable growing/gardening have rocketed as a result.  There is now a real opportunity to build on this momentum and to reconnect citizens to food through celebrating the cultural diversity of foods. There is a real opportunity for the food industry to support this renaissance in the growing, cooking and celebration of foods, particularly linked to appreciation of cultures, place and provenance. Community gardens, fresh produce box schemes, allotments and Community Supported Agricultural schemes have all witnessed a huge upsurge in citizen interest with clear links between these initiatives and physical and mental well-being.

8. Online retail & food service –  Recent research has shown that 77% of all consumers who have purchased more online during the lockdown expect to come under accelerated  pressure from increasing online retail. On-line transparency will continue to play a vitally important role in shaping and influencing consumers with expectations on health, worker conditions, human rights, animal welfare and sustainability continuing to emerge as important citizen priorities.

Covid-19 has highlighted the fragility of our food system to external ‘black swan’ type shocks. Whilst we will never be able to predict the exact nature of these shocks, these events will I am in no doubt, will continue to occur in the future – whether they are climate change related or other incidences of zoonotic diseases. We all need to be working to building back better food systems ensuring resilience to future shocks.  What is clear to me is that whether you are a business, an NGO, or a government, a more integrated approach is required to address future human and ecological health, recognising that nutrition, health, agriculture, economic development, trade and our environment are inextricably linked.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the trends I have outlined in this blog or if you think other Covid-19 related trends will have an impact on how we build back better food systems.

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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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