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Responsible consumption in a time of COVID-19 and beyond
Robert de Graeff, Senior Policy Advisor, European Landowners’ Organization

21st Apr 2020

Consumer image

For many people, the sight of empty supermarket shelves, disputes over the last roll of toilet paper, and store limits on purchases have come as a rude shock. To them, the cornucopia on offer not just in one store but everywhere has been a facet of life that is taken for granted along with running water from the tap. The current pandemic has disrupted those assumptions, which were often based on fragile, just-in-time supply chains that stretched from fields across the world to the store aisle.

To even more people, the disruptions caused by COVID-19 are even more dire; an end to their seasonal farm work wages, long-lasting food chain disruption, and – in many cases – the onset of malnutrition or even starvation. Whereas food chains have, so far, been mostly restored in Europe and elsewhere, in the many places in the developing world, this has not been the case. Far beyond its effects on growers in those countries who are reliant on fast processing and shipping to get perishable goods on Western shelves, local food production has taken a hit as well.

Perhaps one of the outcomes of the current instability in the food chain will be a renewed appreciation for the whole food chain from farmer to shelf stacker as well as a challenge to some of the underlying assumptions on price, labels, and availability. Given the scope of the environmental and climate challenges the world faces on the medium to long term, however, we should not let price and availability become the only criteria by which food consumption is measured; sustainability must remain a core driver of food production going forward.

Supermarkets are very often the only real contact point between the consumer and the food chain, and have both an active role to play in terms of its shop design, advertising, and price setting, but are also subject to the changing priorities and budgets of consumers. Even though there is a long-term global demand for more sustainable products on shelves and a more responsible attitude towards waste, most citizens have experienced limited income growth that would allow them to pay for the additional production costs this requires. The economic effects of COVID-19 could very well exacerbate this situation.

Political and commercial leadership will be crucial to resolve tensions inherent between price, availability, and sustainability. Setting parameters on what should be counted as green, raising the environmental standards for production, reducing food waste; these should all be target areas in the coming months and years. The actions that are now more urgent than ever will need to not be confined to one limited area of the food system, but must take into account the secondary and tertiary effects they would have on the food system; we cannot shift either the burden of price of that of sustainability from one link in the chain to another.

Robert de Graeff
Senior Policy Advisor
European Landowners' Organization

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