Can COVID-19 be an opportunity to cultivate more sustainable and resilient food systems?

The effects of COVID-19 continue to distress communities globally. Policymakers are striving to respond to the public health crisis and its financial implications. They are also expected to address the significant shifts in the food system, supply chain, and labor dynamics. # Can COVID-19 be an opportunity to cultivate more sustainable and resilient food systems?

The food industry has taken its fair share of this unprecedented shift. Despite the initial effects of the crisis, the industry has responded effectively, notably by providing short-term solutions to minimize the risk of spread, keeping supply chain routes open and modifying packaging. However, medium- and long-term commitments for building back a more resilient and sustainable food system need to be revisited since the unprecedented changes may compromise the previously made efforts towards the already ambitious UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The policies embracing research and technological developments in rapid response to the impacts will determine the degree of damage in the food industry, primarily related to food and nutrition security, environmental impact, social justice, and supply chain structure. Even though the crisis has exacerbated the ongoing issues and revealed the weakest chains, it creates an opportunity for the food industry to implement a rapid systematic transformation.

Environmental and social aspects

When rebuilding food systems, not only economic but also ecological and social impacts should be considered. For example, the interventions that can increase water, energy, and non-renewable fuel use should be avoided or minimized. Smart and climate-adapted agricultural systems, and clean and efficient energy systems to process and store foods, are essential. Energy-efficient refrigeration and cooling is a global problem and an attractive area for research and development efforts. For example, the lack of cold storage space for perishable foods was a problem during the initial periods of the crisis, especially for food banks.

The desirable functions of plastics coupled with increased safety concerns have increased the material’s uptake in the food value chain. For example, takeout meal deliveries, disposable and single–use packaging, bags and utensils, are packaged in plastics packaging and containers. The mandatory use of disposable personal protective equipment in the food industry is also increasing single–use material disposal and recycling strategies. The issue should be addressed in the updated urban environmental plans.

The social aspect of food systems, such as farmers, industry workers, and consumers, is also central in systems solutions for sustainable development. With massive layoffs and decline in working hours, 400 million full-time job hours are predicted to be lost, according to the International Labour Organization. Moreover, the most vulnerable workforce, such as informal, young, women, migrant, and wage workers, are most impacted.1,2 The number of workers, including those from in the food industry, is now reduced due to social distancing measures; and increasing demand and sales of certain categories, including non-perishable foods, make operations challenging while keeping the safe working distance.

The food industry is highly dependent on human labor. Whereas higher-income regions can fall back on food processing facilities equipped with speedy automation, the situation can be more pronounced in low-income regions where the human workforce still runs the food chain. Hence, food industry workforce transformation can begin with short- and long-term strategies to support vulnerable workers, operators, smallholder farmers, and wage workers by on-time payments, food donations, loans, and more sick pays.

Food access will also be one of the main issues. Due to COVID-19, the number of people facing acute hunger is predicted to reach 135–265 million, according to the UN World Food Programme. Following the reduced purchase power with layoffs and unemployment, increased malnutrition is expected, particularly for those that are elderly, low-income, from displaced communities or suffering from health issues.

Financial safety nets, additional food donations during school closures to those who depend on school for meal plans, and relaxed criteria for eligibility for receiving food assistance, are essential. US Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has been found to reduce food insecurity by 30%. However, this is not sufficient to sustain a healthy diet with SNAP benefits due to the high costs of fruit and vegetable-rich diets the study finds.3

One option is to modernize the food stamp programs to include incentives to purchase fresh foods. A similar approach can be implemented to educate consumers with more purchasing power to adopt healthier and more sustainable diets for increased immunity against diseases.

Business improvements

Production and trade must continue with minimal disruption to ensure sufficient supply. Food businesses were seemingly adapting well to the shifts by changing production lines and capacities and adopting omnichannel sales and distribution strategies. Social distancing measures at the borders, along with the modified food safety and certification control, have increased the time and cost of products.4

Tactical investments for the transformation of production-line and supply chain involving automation, modification, and digitalization are critical. Medium- and long-term recovery packages will be necessary for improving food sector resiliency. For example, Canada launched the Emergency Processing Fund up to $77.5M (US$59 million) to support proven, viable companies through unexpected business disruptions.5

Besides, rapid digital-integration and cloud based solutions in food, businesses can aid data collection, real-time process monitoring, quality assurance, and enable agile intervention strategies while guiding plant-floor operations remotely. It is challenging for decisionmakers in the food industry to allocate time for robust digital transformation projects in their day-to-day tasks. In the long run, the implementation of food system digitalization such as the Internet of Food (IoF) components, Big Data, and Blockchain will increase production, supply chain, and resource efficiency and reduce environmental footprints associated with the product.

When coupled with the advancing food ecommerce infrastructures and widespread use of smart devices, consumer engagement and marketing opportunities will arise. Digital technologies can also be crucial to improving the sustainability of local food value chains through connecting farmers, manufacturers, traders, and consumers while enabling advanced data-driven tools, such as combining weather and harvest data to maximize crop yields.6

Food surplus has also become challenging due to the changing demand. Many food banks and redistribution organizations have been striving to overcome logistical issues, sorting, and repacking. To support those organizations and prevent surplus food turning into waste, the UK provided the COVID-19 Emergency Surplus Food Grant. The businesses and applications developed for sharing and redistributing foods were also operational. For example, the app “Too Good to Go” flourished during the pandemic, helping food businesses offer bags of foods at reduced prices to customers.7

At the consumer level, the dietary habits of consumers who are now used to purchasing and consuming their products through different outlets are expected to change. Consumption pattern changes have been challenging to predict and can potentially cause food value chain shifts, which may also be perceived as an opportunity for entrepreneurs. Increased home cooking and home-consumption via takeout or delivery has a more pronounced impact in high-income countries. Ready to Eat Food consumption and purchase of shelf-stable foods through ecommerce has increased.8 Also, manufacturers are modifying their packaging to make it more suitable for home consumption.

Identification and adaptation to alternative markets for farms producing specific items for foodservice can be challenging. In particular, the carbon dioxide produced as a by-product of ethanol production facilities is utilized in food systems in modified atmosphere packaging applications in meat, dairy, and fresh produce as well as processing and beer industries.9 Therefore, unintended consequences can be detrimental if not assessed with systems thinking.

Moving forward

The past few months have demonstrated the essential function of the food industry and increased consumer appreciation for packaging. The sustainable supply of nutritious and safe foods helps us fight the disease with the role of foods in immune support. Even before COVID-19, the resilience and sustainability of food systems needed major improvements. The pandemic has shown the urgency of these improvements while creating additional challenges to consider future shocks. Transformation requires much work and the inclusion of all stakeholders with a systems approach. Events such as The UN Food Systems Summit 2021 are expected to raise awareness of the importance of a more inclusive action and to accelerate the improvement measures toward a more sustainable food system.

Ziynet Boz, Ph.D., Packaging Technology and Research LLC.

Sources

1. “ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the world of work. Fifth edition,” International Labour Organization, June 30, 2020, https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/briefingnote/wcms_749399.pdf
2. “Impact of COVID-19 on informal workers,” FAO, April 7, 2020, http://www.fao.org/3/ca8560en/CA8560EN.pdf
3. Kranti Mulik & Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, “The Affordability of MyPlate: An Analysis of SNAP Benefits and the Actual Cost of Eating According to the Dietary Guidelines,” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior Volume 49, Issue 8, September 2017, Pages 623-631.e1, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1499404617307625
4. “COVID-19 and the food and agriculture sector: Issues and policy responses,” OECD, April 29, 2020, http://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/covid-19-and-the-food-and-agriculture-sector-issues-and-policy-responses-a23f764b/
5. “Emergency Processing Fund: Step 1. What this program offers,” Agri-Food Canada, 2020, https://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/agricultural-programs-and-services/emergency-processing-fund/?id=1591291974693
6. Suzanna ElMassaha & Mahmoud Mohieldin, “Digital transformation and localizing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” Ecological Economics, Volume 169, March 2020, 106490, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0921800919303258
7. “Signs of wasted food in UK homes increasing as lockdown eases,” WRAP, July 29, 2020, https://wrap.org.uk/content/signs-wasted-food-uk-homes-increasing-lockdown-eases
See “COVID-19 and the food and agriculture sector: Issues and policy responses.“
8. Lisa Baertlein, “Beer could lose its fizz as CO2 supplies go flat during pandemic,” World Economic Forum, April 22, 2020, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/beer-may-lose-its-fizz-as-co2-supplies-go-flat-during-pandemic/

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