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Building resilient food systems
Robert de Graeff, Senior Policy Advisor, European Landowners’ Organization

20th Jul 2020

Dandelion growing in dry earth image

There has rarely been a more appropriate time to discuss the need for resilience and redundancies in global and European food systems, many of which were badly affected not just by the effects of Covid-19 itself, but possibly more by necessary state responses. Border blockages, reductions in farm worker movements at critical harvest times, closures of prime and specialty buyers like restaurants and hotels; these were only some of the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis for the farm sector. Further up the chain, different problems took hold. Together, these have not just exposed existing weaknesses, but sometimes revealed wholly new issues that had to be dealt with rapidly in order to maintain food security.

As the wider economy is currently showing, it is important to note that the aftermath of crises often festers in systems; the mere act of (physical) recovery does not mean the system itself has healed or improved. With unemployment numbers spiking around the world, the impact of Covid-19 purely in terms of labour and purchasing power could remain and undermine livelihoods and gains in development for years to come, unless swift action is taken.

It is important to note that while the impact of the pandemic is the main topic of conversation, the critical but slow-burning challenges of climate change and biodiversity declines have not yet been substantially answered by modern society or the food system. In the first case, C02 numbers continue to rise and the Arctic Circle sees the highest temperatures in recorded history; in the second, pollinator numbers continue to decline, as does nature overall at an unprecedented rate. Not all of this can be laid at the feet of the food system, but as some of the primary guardians of the world’s lands and waters, it must surely take its share of the responsibility.

If we are to emerge not just as-before, but stronger and better-prepared for the next (systemic) shock, we must urgently build far greater resilience into our agricultural systems. This means creating a system that favours redundancies, local skills and knowledge, as well as a durable global architectures of trade and connectivity. Overall, a combination of local and global resilience will deliver greater preparedness when the next crisis hits. In an ideal world, we would align our economic and food systems in a durable and sustainable manner that avoids systemic crises in the first place. However, completing that transition is probably still decades off. This means that policy makers and actors along the food system must not just begin to deal seriously with the issue of resilience and make it part of their daily practice. We cannot afford to merely respond after the fact.

To shape and maintain resilient agricultural systems is not just to plan for natural and man-made disasters, but even more importantly to act preventatively. By protecting, improving and restoring not just farm landscapes but also ecosystems and the climate. resilient systems can be built that not just absorb shocks but reduce the frequency with which these occur.

The FAO defines three major categories of risk that can be mitigated or avoided through proper resilience; natural and climate-based risk, crises in the food chain such as animal disease and food-borne pathogens, and protracted crises such as hunger, malnutrition and poverty. Clearly, these risks are also correlated; an outbreak of one will exacerbate and reinforce the others. Unfortunately, though understandably, policy makers and stakeholders often give greater thought to preparedness and swift action following an immediate and unpreventable crisis such as a freak flood or pest outbreak – it is immediate and can be grasped by everyone, including voters. In contrast, the other two categories (climate risk and protracted crises) are much better dealt with before they become problematic in the first place, but risk the ‘boy who cried wolf’ problem of being perceived as part of daily experience.

The first step to creating a more resilient food system is to create better early-warning and monitoring systems that command the attention of the relevant actors. In the case of the Covid outbreak, Bill Gates already warned the global community that “we’re not ready” for a pandemic in 2015. It is important to note that investment in early action could come with minor-to-significant upfront and maintenance costs, but that these pay back easily when compared to the human and financial cost of a full-blown outbreak or crisis. In terms of the food system, this means in-depth investment in weather analysis and prediction systems, detection and elimination of pests and diseases that threaten crops, and possibly the creation of strategic reserves not just of non-perishable seeds and food but also necessary inputs such as fertilizer, plant protection, and energy sources needed to fuel farms and transport.

Second comes the reduction of harm done by crises that do occur. Here, we can consider diversification of farm enterprises so that they are not dependent on monocultures or bound into production systems that cannot deal with rapidly changing circumstances. Further up the food chain, consideration should be given to a wider spread of sourcing and careful monitoring of employee health within privacy limits. Furthermore, we repeated testing of existing crisis systems should take place in order to ensure that they remain fit for purpose.

Third and last, though by no means least, should be the shaping of resilience by actual disaster preparedness. Emergency food storage, redundancies in power and IT systems, well-trained emergency responders and global networks that can be activated swiftly are all necessary parts of a resilient food system. However, while these are often seen as the first and only steps needed to be taken by governments and business, more attention and investment in prevention rather than curing should pay off especially where protracted crises are concerned. Building resilient agriculture systems in developing countries, for example, is better and does more at the systemic level than flying in food aid.

Clearly, different parts of the global system are more or less resilient; some countries with advanced economies and medical systems, dependable food supplies and capital reserves, swift action and preparedness are better borne. However, the global nature of supply chains and the interconnectedness of human societies and ecosystems means that there is no longer such a thing as ‘pulling up the drawbridge’. The fate of one society will, in the end, deeply affect the fate of all others.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals remain one of the primary goals when it comes to creating not just resilient food systems, but resilient societies that could afford the citizens and consumers of the world a chance to avert a full-blown climate crisis and resolve protracted crises like poverty and malnutrition. Outbreaks, storms, and other incidental outbreaks will remain with us due to the nature of life on this planet, but lifting global welfare and urgently coming to grips with our rising temperatures will create greater food system resilience than any emergency storage facility.

Robert de Graeff
Senior Policy Advisor
European Landowners' Organization