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Creating a Sustainable Food System Part 1: Bracing for the journey ahead

06 Aug 2020
5 min reading time

Over the past 6 months, global food systems have been put under pressure like never before. The COVID-19 pandemic threw into stark relief the vulnerabilities and inequalities built into the system - from farm to fork - as closed borders threatened summer harvests in Europe, children were unable to receive badly-needed school lunches, and shelves were left empty in shops and supermarkets.

Photograph empty shelves in supermarket because of Covid-19

More than ever, there is a growing awareness of the impact of food poverty, unequal access to nutritious food, and the vital role that delivery, factory and retail workers play in keeping people fed, healthy and safe. It is clear that our food system, currently designed to maximise output and profits, is not fit for purpose within a landscape of increasing shocks, disruption and challenges.

To gain a better understanding of the emerging impacts of the pandemic, EIT Food and sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future held a workshop in May 2020 with 18 leaders and stakeholders from across the global food system, including food manufacturers, entrepreneurs and organisations investing in food innovation. Their reflections and insights have been invaluable in understanding the current challenges facing the food system, as well as what needs to change to deliver a more sustainable food future.

The need for a fundamental mindset shift

Through feedback from the workshop and a recent survey of more than 80 food industry stakeholders, we found that organisations and individuals have responded to the professional and personal challenges presented by the COVID-19 crisis, with a mixture of the three distinct mindsets set out by the Three Horizons Framework:

  • Managerial: focused on managing and optimising the current status quo
  • Entrepreneurial: focused on innovating and evolving the way things are done
  • Visionary: focused on how we deliver the future world we want to live in
Illustration Three Horizons Framework mindsets: managerial, entrepreneurial and visionary

These mindsets were set against a backdrop of four possible future trajectories for the food system, and the world at large, which Forum developed by mapping responses to the pandemic and developments that could shape our future:

  • Transform: Deep and far-reaching change that results in a world that is truly regenerative, with high ambitions for sustainability, and seeds are sown for a future in which both people and planet thrive
  • Compete & Retreat: A retreat into zero-sum thinking and narrow self-sufficiency. Nationalistic agendas gain traction at the cost of international co-operation.
  • Discipline: The acceleration of automation and the normalisation of tech-enabled control and surveillance, in the name of public health and facilitating a return to a form of globalisation.
  • Unsettled: Continuous discontinuity from cascading events and crises, lead to the realization that there will never be a new normal and the world is now unavoidably strange and volatile.

It is crucial to note that the managerial and entrepreneurial mindset, which workshop participants felt currently dominates much of the decision-making in response to COVID-19, corresponds closely with a Collapse or Discipline future scenario, whilst a visionary mindset is essential in creating a resilient, sustainable future that fits a Transform trajectory.

Planting a seed photograph

What does this mean for the food system?

In our workshop we identified a number of areas that could impact which trajectory the food system could follow, raising a number of questions about decisions that will need to be made now and in the future.

1. How will international governments step up to the plate on food security? 

On the whole, the pandemic crisis has seen governments act quickly and boldly to ensure that supply chains avoid collapse. The EU prioritised ‘green lanes’ enabling free movement of freight and workers for the food sector, whilst Singapore, Australia, South Korea and China are in talks for similar protocols. Will governments continue to be closely involved in the food system with more prescriptive strategies? To what degree will the evolution of the food sector be ‘enabled’ versus ‘enforced’ by governments? While businesses are calling on governments to ensure borders are kept open, how will they balance that against the need for domestic food security? Crucially, will governments seize the opportunity to bring together human health and environmental agendas - both inextricably linked - in addressing the post-COVID recovery?

2. Consumers’ relationship to food is changing, but how will this play out in the long term?

A key observation in the workshop was how COVID-19 is impacting consumer’s relationships to, and perceptions of, food. More people in the UK are cooking from scratch than ever before, with increased home time with families during lockdown being a key reason for the change. How consumers interact with the retail sector has also changed profoundly, as shoppers have avoided larger supermarkets in favour of online groceries - forecast to grow by over a quarter in 2020 - and their local shops. Will a new focus on health and nutrition result in permanent shifts to improved dietary norms - and thus greater demand for healthier food products - or will habits revert back to pre-COVID norms once the workforce returns to the office or in the face of the likely economic challenges we are soon to face? Will the shift beyond traditional retail structures become permanent?

With meat production significantly affected around the world, research suggests that in the UK, consumer interest is growing in plant-based, ‘healing’ foods and long life products. Will the growing awareness of the fragility of the farming sector see improvements in the supply chain, which could make farming a more attractive, better valued livelihood? Will rising interest in plant-based proteins help to rebalance meat consumption?

Farmer on land photograph

3. There is an increased focus on employee wellbeing, but how will this impact the food value chain?

Worldwide, there has been an increased focus on the health and wellbeing of the workforce - from healthcare workers and factory staff, to office-bound workers now at home, and migrant workers in tough living conditions now exacerbated by the threat of disease. Will this be enough to shift the power balance between employees and employers? With further coronavirus outbreaks in Germany and the UK linked to working conditions in meat processing plants, could this be an opportunity to rethink society’s relationship between the food we consume and the wellbeing of the workforce who process it?

On the other hand, concerns about disease transmission have sparked increased investment in automation within the food sector. In a bid to guarantee food security, Singapore is also attempting to accelerate localised urban farming on carpark rooftops. What do increased automation and urban farming mean for the livelihoods of workers and rural farmers? And yet, will innovation and digitalisation help us reimagine and drive resilience within the food supply chain?

Robotics in agriculture

In our next article, we will attempt to answer some of these questions. We will examine perspectives and case studies from leaders in the food sector, on the transformation they have undergone - or are going through - to address some of the most pressing issues in the sector, and to better understand how to create the mindset necessary for transformational change.

Some things you can do now:

About The Author: Roberta Iley

Roberta Iley is a Principal Change Designer at Forum for the Future – an international sustainability non-profit working with business, governments and civil society to accelerate a transformational shift toward a sustainable future.

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