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This is the website and blog of Dr John Lever.

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Unsafe and unjust: food system dynamics in a time of crisis

Before the Covid-19 crisis, many of us took the food on our plates for granted. But as we quickly found out, the UK’s food system is ‘stretched, open to disruption and far from resilient’.

As the crisis unfolded, the UK media highlighted the impact of panic buying in supermarkets on key workers and on society’s most vulnerable. It is easy to blame consumers. Yet their reaction was largely a consequence of ‘just in time’ strategies and the embodied belief that we should be able to buy whatever we want whenever we want it. With children home from school, and eating out all but prohibited, this is understandable. But it also illustrates how ‘just-in-time’ supply chains come under strain with even the smallest shift in demand, and how the most vulnerable suffer most from the inequities of the system.

Since the latter half of the 20th century, the rich world has become accustomed to an abundance of food choice. Local food systems around the world have been swept away by the industrialisation of agriculture, and the UK now imports almost 50% of its food. While food has been traded internationally for millennia, the scale and geographical complexity of primary food production is now vast. Buttressed by rapidly evolving technologies that indicate where and when crops are ready to harvest around the globe, ‘just-in-time’ production is brilliantly efficient and profitable, yet it is also incredibly fragile and dependent on logistics.

Coovid-19 is shaking these foundations. While countries in Asia have discussed whether produce should be held back for domestic markets, in the UK supplies of fruit and vegetables are threatened by lockdown and border closures that may restrict the recruitment of migrant workers.

The need to move food production and consumption into a safe and just operating space within planetary boundaries is widely recognised as one of the grand challenges of the 21 century. In 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission’s report 'Food in the Anthropocene' concluded that the way the food system operates poses an existential threat. 

Covid-19 has brought this threat into clear focus. Monocultural production and genetic homogeneity in agriculture has long been identified as a problem. But with investment practices eating steadily into the remaining primary forests and smallholder farms worldwide, Covid-19 has drawn attention to global agriculture's role advancing global health pandemics.

There are other dangerous ecological crises on the horizon, as the recent bush fires in Australia (which killed tens of thousands of farm animals and burnt innumerable crops) demonstrate. We are not immune from ecosystems stress, and the countries we depend on upon for food will be negatively affected by such crises in the coming decades. As Tim Lang suggests, we need to plan and develop strategies to protect and regenerate land for growing food quickly if we are to make our food system more resilient to these shocks.

By 2050, the vast majority of the world’s population will reside in cities, and city governments around the world are already leading the way developing circular, regenerative food systems that can work within planetary boundaries. While there is no one size fits all, policy and theory are increasingly focussed on the development of networked urban-rural interdependencies as a means of developing innovative place-based food systems.

Five hundred years ago in Utopia (1512), Thomas More anticipated a network of self-sufficient cities surrounded by suburban food growing sites. Covid-19 is pushing cities in new directions. Milan has a post pandemic ‘plan zero’ involving new ways of planting trees to enhance future social distancing measures, while Amsterdam has announced it will be the first city to fully adopt Raworth’s economic model to enable a just and safe future. Staying “Safe” (within planetary boundaries) and “Just” (to address a range of inequities) requires that we produce food in new, innovate and more resilient ways. As Covid-19 has shown, this is no longer a utopian vision.

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