The Dutch food system post-coronavirus

Every crisis leaves behind traces. That is what crises do. The coronavirus crisis is no exception, although when it comes to our food system, it is hard to predict which aspects will soon be seen as ‘pre-coronavirus’ and which ‘post-coronavirus’. Doing more things online – from videoconferencing to ordering food – may well stay with us for some time to come, now that we have been forced to learn how to do them. But will that also be true of the increased demand for more sustainable and healthier products and shopping trips to the local farmer?

We need to take a long look at what kind of future we want as a society, and we need to do it now.

Predictions in this area soon turn into speculation. Many of these opinions are also often based mainly on visions or ideals rather than analysis (Heijne, 2020). At the same time, the government and businesses are under pressure to take all kinds of decisions at breakneck speed which until recently would have been the subject of studies, social cost/benefit analyses, expert committees and political discussion in which consensus would be difficult to achieve. To put it another way, we need to take a long look at what kind of future we want as a society, and we need to do it now. Which is why I have put down some thoughts on paper, for what it is worth at this time.

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Health crisis

The first thing that strikes one about the coronavirus crisis is that it is a health crisis which has close links to the food system and which exposes the inherent weaknesses in it. It is a zoonosis which seems to have emerged as a result of the unprofessional and perhaps even illegal trade in exotic wild animals in Wuhan. But it is still a zoonosis, and although as far as the experts are concerned it has little to do with the way we keep cattle, that is not how many members of the public see it: there is a widespread belief that it is essentially no different from Q fever and that ‘Mother Nature is fighting back’. Recent Corvid-19 cases in mink producton and problems with cotainment in slaughterhouses strengthen fears. Rightly or wrongly, in management and politics, ‘feelings are facts’.

A second striking phenomenon is that many coronavirus patients in ICU are men with obesity and lifestyle-related disorders. Nutrition and lifestyle clearly play a role. Up to now, governments have been reluctant to get involved in helping people attain a healthy lifestyle, but the realisation is now growing that preventive health care needs to be given more prominence alongside or within the study of medicine. A third issue is air quality. Not only are people currently experiencing what it is like to live in a cleaner environment which seems to be saving large numbers of lives, but there are also indications that air pollution impacts on the number of victims, whether through transmission or because of poorer health outcomes (The Economist, 2020; Wu et al., 2020).

The fact that these phenomena impact on the consumer/general public and our living environment ties in seamlessly with a scientific analysis of the Dutch food system and the need for a transition to a more sustainable and healthy system that has been ongoing for some years: the negative effects are at the beginning and end of the supply chain – the weakest links – and policymakers are reluctant to intervene (Rli, 2018). The question is, therefore, what we will learn for the post-coronavirus era.

Economic crisis

The lockdown measures have also transformed this health crisis into an economic one. Many agricultural supply chains have been significantly disrupted overnight: the market for cut flowers and chipping potatoes has collapsed, it is proving difficult to divert product from the out-of-home market to the supermarket channel, and experienced seasonal workers from Eastern Europe have suddenly stopped coming and are having to be replaced by unemployed workers from the hospitality sector.

International food markets are starting to become severely disrupted, which is also affecting Dutch imports and exports. And just as in 2007/8, protectionism is rearing its head, which is extremely damaging for disadvantaged people in developing countries (Ruben et al., 2020).

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Across the globe, we are currently facing an economic crisis of unprecedented magnitude. This will haunt us for much longer than the health crisis, bringing with it a deep recession with rocketing unemployment. This will impact on the food system of the future.

Political crisis?

And if all that were not enough, there is also the risk of global geopolitical divisions worsening. Within the EU, cooperation is far from optimal: every country is focusing on dealing with its own problems and we are once again seeing closed borders.

The financial measures being introduced by governments are leading to much higher levels of debt, which could potentially lead to a political crisis in the EU, especially if the recession changes opinions on the need for a Green Deal on the climate and other environmental policies.

From an international perspective, Asian countries seem to have been better prepared because of their experience with SARS and MERS. Populist leaders seem to be having great difficulty responding promptly, with grave consequences. It remains to be seen what this will mean for the global balance of power, international trade and our attitudes towards the role of the state.

Four-level model

An analysis designed to separate the short-term and temporary effects from the long-term structural impact would benefit from a methodology, which is where Oliver Williamson’s four-level model of institutional economics (2000) comes in. At the bottom level are the changes in markets and the allocation of goods and their prices and volumes. This includes, for example, changing demand for online food shopping and home deliveries, more digital consultancy services and inspections, lower demand for foreign seasonal workers, increased demand for cheap chicken in times of recession, and so on. This is the area in which trends are perhaps easiest to observe and predict. And markets for products and services can very rapidly return to a state of equilibrium.

What supply chain mechanisms do we use to manage production and consumption? Do we trade via auctions or contracts? Are we looking only at price when we buy or sell, or other aspects as well?

The level above that is governance: What supply chain mechanisms do we use to manage production and consumption? Do we trade via auctions or contracts? Are we looking only at price when we buy or sell, or other aspects as well? We can also expect businesses to voice some concerns in this area. Contract farmers who are suddenly facing rock-bottom prices for chipping potatoes or veal calves will be wondering whether those contracts are not unilaterally offloading the risk onto them. In boardrooms across the world, CEOs will need to ask themselves why they were not insured against this situation (the Wimbledon tennis tournament is, having had a case of SARS during that outbreak, prompting them to amend their risk analysis). Likewise, a Polish retailer will be asking themselves whether asparagus should not be grown at home in the future rather than being sourced from the Low Countries, where there are problems to deliver in time at a low price.

If businesses themselves are not already asking these questions, the government should be. And this brings us to Williamson’s third level: the formal laws and regulations. In a crisis, power gains authority, and that is also the case in European states at the moment. This creates opportunities to start taking action in more areas such as climate. Action will first and foremost be required in areas in which shortcomings have come to light – not only in health care and other critical infrastructure, but also in the labour market in general, where many self-employed and low-paid workers soon find themselves in financial difficulties, despite the fact that they have now been labelled ‘essential workers’. Policies of this type can also have implications for the food system with its large numbers of low-paid jobs.

The government will soon have to take another look at its relationship to businesses we are currently saving with capital injections and loans. If we keep KLM and Schiphol afloat instead of passing their losses on to international investors and allowing them to continue after a relaunch (as was the case with Sabena and Swissair), will we also reach agreements on climate, nitrogen and tax-free flying within a 750 km radius in the coming years? The same applies to the food system. If we support farmers and the meat, dairy or potato chip industry with taxpayers’ money, would that be in the form of loans to be paid back over the next few years, or would it be aid that comes with stipulations on the volume of production, given that production is to some extent based on foreign inputs which cause environmental pollution here, and given that we also have a nitrogen crisis to fix? Or would this prompt us to give the sector as much freedom as possible due to the strategic importance of being able to feed ourselves, and to go easy on the sector in environmental policy discussions? (Terluin et al., 2013) All these questions are already relevant now and will soon become even more so.

The fourth level in the model changes most slowly over time and often only in response to extreme crises: the level of culture, norms and values. Speculations are perhaps the rifest at this level. Some believe that we will change as individuals, developing more of a sense of community, enjoying the spring more in our own gardens or in nature (which does in fact seem to be experienced more intensely), being more aware of healthy, sustainable lifestyles and cycling to the local farmer for food in the short food supply chain. Others point out that many, not least young people whose needs are now having to play second fiddle to those of the vulnerable elderly, will expect society and the government to demonstrate the same commitment towards preventing the next crisis, namely that of the climate. But one can equally argue that hedonism will soon return and people will want to make up for lost time, despite – or perhaps precisely because of – unemployment. After all, the Spanish flu presented no obstacle to the Roaring Twenties.


Major uncertainties are a prime reason for conducting a scenario analysis (Van Duijne et al., 2019; EU SCAR, 2015; Van der Heijden, 2005). It therefore makes sense to take the two top – and most uncertain – levels in the Williamson models as variables: will we or will we not be moving into a period with a lot or little government intervention, and will we or will we not start adopting a new lifestyle? This results in a typical quadrant matrix with four scenarios (figure 1):

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Four post-Covid-19 scenarios

Business as usual

In this scenario, little changes in terms of our lifestyles and the government’s role in society. We quickly revert to our former habits in an individualised society. The government manages the recession but it turns out less severe than expected, with loans to businesses being paid back promptly and the state returning its holdings to the market over time, as was the case after the banking crisis. With attitudes unchanged, there is little pressure on the government to proactively engage with climate and other environmental issues; policymakers therefore continue to find it difficult to do so. That does not mean that nothing will change at all. There will certainly be shifts at the lower levels of Williamson’s model: doing more online, tightening up contracts to reflect risks and insuring against a pandemic are just some examples. Manufacturers may consider spreading the risk by manufacturing in several different countries instead of at one central location – as we have seen, videoconferencing and the Internet of Things are enabling us to operate remotely perfectly well – resulting in significant changes in some situations. But the world is not radically different in this scenario. In terms of a resilient mindset (WUR, 2018), the main change is an increase in robustness.

The Hague Central

In this scenario, the Covid-19 crisis causes very little to change in terms of our lifestyles, but the government assumes a lot of power. The neoliberal thinking embraced by Thatcher and Reagan in the crisis of the 1970s is sidelined. We once again appreciate the government as the organiser of society, given its input in the crisis. The coronavirus remains in our midst for some time and the economic crisis is deep and long. The government makes a concerted effort to adapt the labour market. More money is invested in health care and education, and taxes rise. Work, work, work is the adage, partly realised with housebuilding, which, in light of experiences in the crises, primarily takes place in garden cities on agricultural land. Almere-Oosterwold serves as a source of inspiration for the 1.5-metre city. The European Green Deal is substantially watered down in order to avoid damaging our competitive position vis-à-vis other continents. However, public works are in part linked to climate and energy issues, which are the subject of international agreements, and there are still NGOs that find the courts on their side. Farmers who believe that, with so much attention being focused on jobs, production will be free from environmental constraints may well be disappointed. ‘Nitrogen quota’are transferred from the agricultural sector to housebuilding and industry. Circular agriculture moves ever closer with extensivisation and land-based livestock farming. A win-win situation from many perspectives. There are opportunities for growers of fruit and vegetables as a healthier alternative. In terms of a resilience mindset, one could characterise this scenario as adaptive: not only do certain supply chains adapt in order to become more resilient, but government policy causes the food system itself to adapt to the space available in the country, thus making it less vulnerable. That, in turn, forces export-focused businesses to expand abroad more.

Together in the region

This is a scenario in which we adapt our lifestyles but neoliberal politics remains the dominant force. The flourishing sense of community, our heightened awareness of nature and a healthy living environment with healthy food endure. Tourism at home, or at least in north-western Europe, grows in significance, partly due to the impact of unemployment, low wage growth and the higher taxes needed to balance the country’s books. All this offers opportunities for short supply chains and multifunctional and organic agriculture. Commonality is seen as important, manifesting itself among other things in local products and authenticity. Initiatives from rural development programmes such as Zuid-Hollandse Voedselfamilies are widely imitated. Wage costs remain low, not least because people from other member states with economic problems are keen to work here. Political discussion on the environmental space taken up by agriculture takes place at the regional level, but with the emphasis on odour and particulates rather than on climate, nitrogen or soil. The major export-oriented agricultural businesses and their contract farmers therefore experience little heel-dragging. The food system consists of a regional component with multifunctional farmers and short supply chains, but exists alongside conventional agriculture and multinationals producing cheap products for bargain hunters and the export market with their strategy of economies of scale. In terms of a resilience mindset, one could characterise this scenario as adaptive: not only do certain supply chains adapt in order to become more resilient, but the food system itself becomes more diverse and adapts to new values and norms.

Rethinking the country side

This is the most extreme scenario. Just as in the post-war reconstruction era, the government plays a much more prominent role in society. Simultaneously, our attitudes towards our lifestyles and how we interact with one another change. These two trends play off each other and the government is tasked with reinventing the economy. We only keep those parts of the old economy that we want to take with us into the future. We want to be properly prepared for the next crisis, so the government, having come through a severe health and economic crisis, has the role of preparing us for the climate crisis. Given the success of the apps that managed our behaviour patterns for three years to get us out of the lockdown in an intelligent way, society is fully focused on IT and transparency, even if at the expense of privacy. Farmers must publish their use of pesticides and other environmental indicators. Because of the great social experiment that is the coronavirus, the government realises that consumer behaviour can in fact be influenced and actively starts nudging people to switch from animal to plant-based protein. The meat tax has been rapidly introduced and helps cover budgetary shortfalls. The coronavirus app is updated with a module that links nutritional intake and health status, so that your smartphone turns red, orange or green after your evening meal and your family doctor can track your nutrition status with AI software. As a counterbalance, the government regulates tech companies and platforms to safeguard privacy and the benefits provided by these facilities. Likewise, as we have done with the self-employed, we start to realise that farmers are the operational arm of multinationals and we should rather judge those multinationals in terms of their true cost than subsidise and regulate farmers. Just as in the 1950s, cost prices for government interventions are calculated independently, but now on the basis of true cost. Robot technology becomes widely established and replaces a large proportion of immigrant seasonal workers. This is particularly strongly encouraged in the fruit and vegetable sector, on the one hand because we are eating more healthily but want to keep healthy food affordable for lower wage groups, and on the other hand because operational labour costs are rising. With innovations abounding, the economic crisis soon disappears from the picture and wages rise, thus further encouraging automation and robotisation. The combination of changing lifestyles, rising incomes and more government control causes the size of the agricultural sector to adapt to the shrinking environmental space available. At the same time, we are developing a lot of new technology which we will export. The big agricultural suppliers and food producers see themselves increasingly as north-western European businesses and form symbiotic relationships with many smaller start-ups which they may eventually buy out in order to expand. In terms of a resilient mindset, this scenario is focused on transformation.

In conclusion

These scenarios will not happen, of course. That is not what scenarios are for; they are not predictions. They serve mainly to attempt to structure our thinking and hone our frames of reference, but also to trigger debate on the issue of what future we actually want. Scenarios are primarily intended to prepare businesses, organisations and individuals for surprises. But collectively we can also make choices to some degree. Given current pressures, this currently often needs to happen at breakneck speed. Analyses of this kind can help, provided they are fleshed out with quantitative assumptions so that they can be turned into models and used to track down new insights and identify inconsistencies. They could also be refined in order to help the government and businesses make certain decisions. Updates will also be required as we gain a better understanding of the direction things are taking; we will probably be able to create a more accurate picture six months from now.

In terms of the methodology, with new developments we may find it useful to interpret and examine the facts for any weak signals and then see whether they fit into Williamson’s 4-level model. We can then identify the greatest uncertainties in the higher levels of the model and explore them in more depth using a foresight technique.

With thanks to participants in various discussions in recent weeks at Wageningen Economic Research, the Council for the Environment and Infrastructure, the Foodlog community and the Transitiecoalitie Voedsel. Any opinions expressed in this piece are my own and not those of these organisations.

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