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Food and agricultural systems should be reformed to recover from COVID-19

Published on
January 21, 2021

​The pandemic highlights the global problem of food security. But research and innovation (R&I) can tackle the problem and 'build back better'. This is shown by the Standing Committee on Agricultural Research (SCAR)'s Foresight Team of the European Union, of which researcher of WUR's Rural Sociology Group, Dr Jessica Duncan, was an expert. The SCAR Foresight report details the complexity and urgency of food production and supply and calls for research and innovation to catalyse changes. By setting targets, improving diets, and making food systems more diverse and circular, the EU can recover from the crisis.

Widespread issues of food systems

Problems with food and agricultural systems have been widespread and severe since long before COVID-19 appeared. Not only is 8% of the world's population undernourished; an increasing number is overweight. The environment is also compromised: Food and agriculture are responsible for up to 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, despite EU plans to reduce the European footprint. About a third of the food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted. And diversity is reduced so much that 1 million plant and animal species face extinction. Yet our food habits are so concentrated that 60% of calories come from just three grains: rice, maize and wheat.

COVID-19 strains food systems

The COVID-19 crisis highlighted and amplified these challenges. After localised disruptions in food supplies, prices increased, modestly in Europe (2-5% for key products), but more dramatically in some parts of the world (15% in Argentina, nearly 20% in Myanmar). Switching to remote education deprived the children of millions of low-income families across the globe of school lunches.

In some food industry sectors, in Europe and beyond, workers found themselves unwillingly on the front lines of virus exposure. People have been forced to change how and where they get food as well: Thousands of restaurants have closed and online food sales have soared, which means that food supplies have been reallocated, with broad economic and social consequences.

Resilience and transformation

These are among a few of the food impacts of the pandemic presented in the 5th report of the SCAR Foresight Group: “Resilience and Transformation". The group details long-term changes to “build back better", as Joe Biden puts it. The EU has taken some steps already, with a plan to go carbon-neutral by 2050, and a variety of new policies, programmes and legislation that will propel its Green Deal, Biodiversity, Farm to Fork, and Circular Economy plans.  However, according to SCAR, further research and innovation (R&I) is essential.

Targets for humans and planet

One area where R&I can help solve these problems is by setting clear targets for the future. For example, the EU could aim to cut agricultural pesticide usage by 75% and reduce the average body mass index from an average of 51.8% overweight. The EU should also set up an extended research programme to improve diets and nutrition. Currently, we eat 2.5 to 3 times as much meat as recommended by dieticians, which affects or own health and that of the planet. Research can help understand the various underlying reasons and create solutions.

Food of the future

For society and the economy to become more resilient – a problem highlighted by the pandemic – we need more diversity: In what we eat, what we grow and fish, and how we structure society. The EU should support food diversity by developing new knowledge, technologies, ecosystem services, and environmental policies. Environmental agriculture can also be driven by advancing the field of “agroecology". For example, farmers can work to improve soil quality and the EU actively support circular food systems.

SCAR

The report is published by a group of 14 experts in food, agriculture and research policy organised by the European Commission for the EU's SCAR. Among its members is Associate Professor in Rural Sociology at WUR, Dr Jessica Duncan, expert on the politics of sustainable food systems.