Crises like this bring focus to what is truly important, like access to healthy and nutritious food. With lock down disrupting both flow of goods and skilled labour, food shortages in the UK seem plausible as we import between 40-50% of our food and other countries like Singapore or Qatar importing a higher percentage, are even more at risk. A strategic response could address both mid- and long-term issues in our food system, which is the single strongest lever to optimise human health and environmental sustainability. There are three elements to such a response:
1. Localisation – making food production, distribution and processing more local, to create a diverse and connected web and a "just circular economy", able to balance resource flows. This will reduce food miles, shorten supply chains and deliver fresher food.
2. High tech and natural production – supporting the transition of conventional farming to either fully enclosed and controlled growing (needs investment in start-ups to get off the ground quickly) or soil focused, agrochemical free farming (needs supporting farmers in transition). The first can grow food at scale in urban and peri-urban areas and delivers fresher food (proximity to consumer) with less land take, water use and without harmful chemicals. The second regenerates depleted farmlands, provides more nutrient rich food, captures carbon and restores biodiversity while being more drought and flood resilient.
3. Food citizenship – encouraging a close connection between consumer, producer, land and sea to ensure fair access to healthier food and protection of the planet. Value and benefits would be shared equitably between producer and consumer and it helps to change today’s priorities of quantum and price towards health and sustainability, while keeping food affordable.
To make the transition to this new, sustainable, resilient and healthy food system will require research and innovation in growing techniques, ones that can produce healthier food sustainably and more locally than before. It will also need close collaboration between entities throughout the food chain, from producers to consumers to waste recovery, supported by robust institutions and sound governance.
As relying on market mechanisms and international trade doesn’t seem to work as well during a global pandemic, governments and private sector suppliers will need to invest in a stronger domestic food infrastructure. Organisational, as well as national resilience, will require shorter, more local supply chains to speed up that transition.