Food system resilience

June 24, 2021

Bart de Steenhuijsen Piters and other WUR researchers have published policy advice on how food systems can be made more resilient to shocks. One of them is the paper: Food System Resilience, towards a joint understanding and implications for policy.

Innumerable scientific papers have already been written about resilience, but what do they say about our food system?

One of the lessons of COVID-19 is that food systems throughout the world appear to differ in their resilience. Wageningen University & Research analysed what policymakers need to know to make food systems more resilient to the next shock, which will inevitably follow. “The next shock could be completely different from the present pandemic,” predicts researcher Bart de Steenhuijsen Piters.

What has the present pandemic taught us about our food system?

Bart de Steenhuijsen Piters: “COVID-19 was a wake-up call for us. Immediately after the first lockdown was announced, you saw panic in the Netherlands. People started hoarding, something that hadn’t happened here since World War II. We were suddenly confronted with empty shelves. ‘Shouldn’t we be more self-sufficient?’ was a question that was frequently asked. This sort of question interests me as a researcher. Would our food system indeed become more resilient if our food supply was less dependent on food imports? Perhaps during a pandemic and the resulting economic shock. But that also makes us more vulnerable to climate shocks because our food provision would be more centrally located. All sorts of shocks can occur, each demanding its own response mechanism.”

Doesn’t this make it very difficult to determine what you should do to be better prepared for the next shock?

“Yes, and until now science has offered little guidance. There are all sorts of knowledge puzzle pieces, but they don’t fit together. We have tried to reduce the complexity to the essence: what do you have to know if you want to increase the resiliency of the food system? And then you see that the scientific literature mentions at least four factors that contribute to this resilience. If a system meets all these conditions, it’s very resilient to all sorts of shocks. Human agency is one of the four: the ability of people to stand up for their own interests. As a consumer, your interest could differ from that of a farmer or the owner of a larger retailer. In many food systems, these interests are out of balance. In various West African countries, for example, the food market is dominated by several large traders who have a major interest in, for example, importing cheap chicken meat from Brazil. As a result, their own poultry sector has hardly been developed. You could argue that the consumer profits from the availability of cheap proteins, but if the borders close or if Brazil decides that it needs the chicken meat for its own consumption, the adaptability of a country is small.”

Buffering is a second condition for better coping with crises. That sounds logical.

“True. But if you look at our own food system, you’ll see that the focus has been on efficiency improvement for decades. Buffers have disappeared from our food system as no economic value is added until they suddenly appear to be needed. India is often cited as a perfect example of a country with inefficient value chains. Having learned from food shortages in the past, the government invested heavily in enormous food reserves. That was very useful during COVID-19; in contrast to many other countries, there were no food shortages in India. So should we too invest in food reserves? These reserves would have to be given economic value somewhere in the value chain. And that leads to the question of who should create the reserves and who pays the price of doing so? It costs money to build reserves.”

The third condition is that we need to have sufficient connections within and between food systems. Can you explain that?

“During COVID-19, we saw that measures taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus unintentionally had a negative effect on that connectivity. The health shock led to immobility, which resulted in local food shortages in some low-income countries. However, maximum connectivity is also not good. Bird flu was spread on a large scale because poultry products are transported worldwide or birds fly from one company to another. But connectivity is an important characteristic of resilience; you’ll have to search for an optimum.”

The last condition is diversity. Are systems with less diversity more vulnerable?

“Yes, science has proved that conclusively. When diversity is mentioned, you immediately think of biodiversity, but it also plays a role in other factors. For example, diversity in retail: a food system becomes vulnerable as soon as it’s dominated by a few large retailers and no more small retailers are left. That uniformity is bad for the reaction capacity and absorption capacity of a food system.”

The key question: what can policymakers do with this knowledge?

“The point is that there’s not just one captain at the helm of the food system. If you look at our country, you can see that there’s no such thing as ‘food and nutrition policy’; it’s more like the sum of different policies. Simultaneously, we can say with a probability bordering on certainty that the pandemic won’t be the last shock that our food system will be exposed to. More shocks will follow, and they’ll be of a different nature.  If we want to make our food system more resilient, we need a focused food and nutrition policy. The path to that begins by recognising that differences in interest between stakeholders in society play a role. These interests must be carefully weighed and translated into steering mechanisms that must partly be implemented by the government. And that’s not an easy process in the Netherlands. For example, the United Kingdom has since few years had a sugar tax as a reaction to the problem of obesity. In the Netherlands there’s a lot of resistance to taxing food. At the same time, a sort of collective insight has arisen on the need to make Dutch agriculture more sustainable because the negative side-effects have become too big. The first steps towards a food and nutrition policy have been taken. The next question is whether we know which knobs to turn to make the system more resilient.”

Isn’t it time for a minister who’s responsible for our food and nutrition policy?

“That would be interesting, but the preceding step demands first creating policy that’s based on our food system and not on the agricultural production system. Moreover, government policy is only one of many mechanisms to increase resiliency. For example, the consumer’s changing demand for more regional products as well as reversing the concentration of retail companies that is still ongoing. But it is nevertheless very clear that we have to be better prepared for the next shock, a shock that could appear totally different from COVID-19.”