Food systems are essential to economic activity because they provide the energy we need to live and work.
However, macroeconomists have long ignored them in the belief that the global agrifood industry always offers all we could wish for when it comes to food.
This year, 2020, will be a year of reckoning for the world’s food systems. In just months, Covid-19 shut down half the globe. Images of panic buying, empty grocery shelves and miles-long queues at food banks have suddenly reminded us how important food systems are in our lives and how imbalanced they have become.
Pandemic-induced runs on food, however, do not merely reflect human behaviour during emergencies. They are evidence that the global food supply chain – highly centralised and operating on a just-in-time supply basis – is prone to falter in the face of shocks.
In many countries, for example, it became impossible to harvest or package food as workers were blocked at borders or fell sick. Elsewhere, stocks piled up and avalanches of food went to waste because restaurants and bars were closed.
The limitations of the food system go beyond failing to feed the world well.
Food produced through the overuse of chemicals, in monoculture cropping systems, and intensive animal farming on land and at sea degrades natural resources faster than they can reproduce and causes a quarter of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions, with livestock responsible for about half of that.
According to scientific research, including by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, industrial animal farming operations that rear large numbers of animals in confined spaces breed lethal viruses, like the 2009 swine flu, and spread antibiotic-resistant ‘superbugs’ because of the overuse of antibiotics to promote their growth and prevent infections.
At the same time, our uncontrolled disturbance of pristine habitats to farm and hunt has allowed deadly pathogens like SARS, HIV and Ebola to jump species, infecting ours.
The rebuilding of economies after the Covid-19 crisis offers a unique opportunity to transform the food system and make it resilient to future shocks, ensuring environmentally sustainable and healthy nutrition for all.
– Resilient food supply chains: Efficient and effective food supply chains are essential to lowering the risks of food insecurity, malnutrition, food price fluctuations and can simultaneously create jobs. Rural transformation to empower small producers and retailers and mainstream them in the food systems economy can help build resilient food supply chains.
– Healthy diets: Curbing the overconsumption of animal and highly processed food in wealthier countries and improving access to good nutrition in poorer ones can improve well-being and land-use efficiency, make healthy food more affordable globally, and slash carbon emissions.
Retargeting agricultural subsidies toward healthy foods, taxing unhealthy foods, and aligning procurement practices, education programmes and healthcare systems toward better diets can go a long way in achieving this. In turn, this can reduce healthcare costs globally, reduce inequality, and help us weather the next pandemic with healthier individuals.
– Regenerative farming: A shift toward sustainable and regenerative land and ocean farming connected to strong local and regional food systems can heal our soils, air and water, boosting economic resilience and local jobs. It can be attained by promoting sustainable farming, facilitating market access and levelling the financial and regulatory playing field for smaller, sustainable farmers relative to large intensive farmers.
– Conservation: Breeding fewer animals to accommodate a shift toward more plant-based diets in wealthier countries is key to saving pristine ecosystems.
Food systems are at the crossroads of human, animal, economic and environmental health.
Ignoring this exposes the world economy to ever-larger health and financial shocks as climates change and the global population grows.
* Adapted from the International Monetary Fund blog