COVID-19 and Sustainable Food Systems: What Should We Learn Before the Next Emergency (2021 Mar)

Bisoffi S, Ahrné L, Aschemann-Witzel J, Báldi A, Cuhls K, DeClerck F, et al. COVID-19 and Sustainable Food Systems: What Should We Learn Before the Next Emergency. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems. 2021.March-08;5(53).

Relevant to:

Dietitians-Nutritionists working in research and policy development. Also, for those interested in the impacts of COVID-19 on the food system, and how to increase future food resiliency and sustainability.


This paper addresses: how COVID-19 affected food systems and food governance; three transitions identified as necessary to better address future needs; the authors’ policy and research recommendations that emerged as a result of these deliberations. It focuses on Europe, but many observations are relevant globally.

Bottom line for nutrition practice:

The authors recommend three central transitions in the food system needed to increase sustainability and resilience: i) the right to sustainable and healthy diets for all; ii) full circularity (closing cycles) in resource use (e.g., re-using side stream products of food and feed chains); and, iii) diversity across all aspects of the food system to increase resiliency and robustness (including agricultural, supply chains, and social and economic systems). They suggest that a market focus on economic efficiency created a vulnerable system.

The report delineates their observations of how the COVID-19 crisis impacted the food system, including: global governance weakness; heightened recognition of inequalities; increase of global food insecurity; greater recognition of the value of low skilled food workers and jobs; severe crisis in the food services sector; increase in food retail and online food delivery services; and, consumer behaviours switching from eating out to take away and home delivery food.

Policy priorities that emerged from their observations include: a focus on the importance of food and its relationship to nutrition and health; increased recognition of the valuable role of local and regional food; transformation of the food system from environmentally exploitative to regenerative and circular; the role of the agri-food industry in using discharged labour from other sectors; and, the need to re-examine European Common Agricultural Policy. The authors conclude by making science and research recommendations to support sustainable and resilient food systems.


Three key transitions leading to a “safe and just” operating space, with a focus on food systems, emerged during the development of a Foresight study promoted by SCAR (Standing Committee on Agricultural Research1): (a) sustainable and healthy diets for all; (b) full circularity in the use of resources; (c) diversity as a key component of stable systems.

As consequence of COVID-19, food emerged again as a central element of life, along with health, after decades in which food security was taken for granted, at least in most developed countries. The COVID-19 outbreak offered the opportunity for a reflection on the importance of resilience in emergencies. Sustainable and healthy diets for all, was shown, during the pandemic, to depend much more on social and economic conditions than on technical aspects of food production and processing. Agriculture and the agro-industry have now a potential to absorb, at least temporarily, workers laid out in other sectors; the pandemic could be an opportunity to re-think and re-value labor relationships in the sector as well as local productions and supply chains.

A full circularity in food systems also would benefit from stronger links established at the territorial level and increase the attention on the quality of the environment, leading to the adoption of benign practices, regenerating rather than impoverishing natural resources. Diversity is a key component of a resilient system, both in the biophysical sphere and in the social sphere: new business models, new knowledge-sharing networks, new markets. The three transitions would operate in synergy and contribute to the resilience of the whole food system and its preparation for a possible next emergency.

Science can support policy making; however, science needs to be better embedded in society, to have a clear direction toward the grand challenges, to address the social, economic, behavioral spheres, to aim clearly at the common good. We need to re-think the conundrum between competition and cooperation in research, devising ways to boost the latter without sacrificing excellence. We need to improve the way knowledge is generated and shared and we need to ensure that information is accessible and unbiased by vested interests.

Details of results:

The authors argue that what is novel about COVID-19 is how quickly it spread across the world, and that it was perceived as life-threatening across all countries and socio-economic strata. They further note that the crisis signaled that health is more important than the economy.

In relation to how the COVID-19 crisis impacted the food system, first, the authors observed weakness in global governance in responding to the crisis. For example, World Health Organization recommendations were mostly ignored, and countries took their own paths, often with extreme reactions toward either safe or risky decisions (e.g., extreme lock downs, or not implementing contact tracing). They suggest that greater coordination was needed. Second, the authors noted how COVID-19 exacerbated inequalities in wealth and social protection, highlighting that more vulnerable members of society were most impacted.

This included informal, self-employed and migrant workers and those with zero-hours included in their contracts (e.g., catering, household services). (The editor of this review notes that inequities have continued since this article was written, illustrated by the inequality of vaccine distribution between countries). Third, the authors argue that “food insecurity is back on the agenda”, noting that almost all countries report a substantial increase of people accessing food aid. In developed countries, this mainly resulted from a loss of employment, and thus income. Tens of million more people were pushed into extreme poverty in developing countries. School closures restricted the distribution of school meals, which for some poor families is the only reliable food source.

Fourth, the authors argue that a greater value of what are referred to as “low skilled” food workers and jobs was recognized due to the labour shortage resulting from lockdowns and restrictions (e.g., in relation to migrant workers); they note, however, that this will not necessarily remain the situation post-crisis. Looking broadly at the food sector, the authors maintain that physical and technological infrastructures did not fail, but the social interfaces between them collapsed. For example, food was still produced in the fields, but lacked labour to harvest, and border closures blocked transportation of goods.

Next, lockdowns and restrictions severely constrained the food services sector. This further resulted in a break in the flow of goods (e.g., to schools, hotels, restaurants) upon which many suppliers rely. Finally, the authors document an increase in food retail and online food delivery services and consumer behaviours switching from eating out to take away and home delivery food. They note that while consumers also bought more convenience foods, they also increased their baking and cooking. They also comment on a trend in the sales of organic foods and other foods associated with health, and a possible decrease in food waste.

In examining policy priorities that emerged from their observations, the authors contend that the COVID-19 crisis has increased the recognition of the essential value of food. They reference food as a universal human right that should not depend upon purchasing power. They further suggest that the crisis exposed the vulnerability of informal labour within the food sector. It also exposed the weakness of the “just in time” system within supermarkets which were especially vulnerable to long supply chains, and the domino effect of breaks in the flow of goods as noted above.

The authors contend that local production and supply chains, while they may be less efficient, more redundant and have lower profitability, are balanced by an increase in stability and resilience. While international trade remains important, it is more vulnerable to disruption, and the authors contend that both international trade and local/regional chains are required. Indeed, this crisis has led some policy makers to advocate for more local food self-sufficiency.

Next, the authors advocate for food systems and regenerative farming practices that preserve and improve the environment and reduce the impact on climate change. Circular economy principles should be employed (e.g., where by-products are integrated back into the system, external inputs are minimized, and animals are integrated into farming to restore soil fertility). An increase in human consumption of plant-based foods is also encouraged for environmental and human health. Next, the authors note that agriculture and the agri-food industry could become a temporary buffer zone by taking in workers laid-off by other sectors. Finally, the authors suggest that the European Common Agricultural Policy benefits land ownership over public goods, and it needs to be re-examined.  

The authors argue that public dialogue is essential in order to avoid agendas set by private interests that may not prioritize the public good. They suggest that industrial competitiveness needs to work toward climate change mitigation, biodiversity and natural resource conservation, public health and a healthy civil society.

The authors conclude by making science and research recommendations which support sustainable and resilient food systems. They contend that researchers need to openly share knowledge, and that cooperation rather than competition in research be enhanced. They argue that policy making needs to be science-based, and highlight the importance of social sciences and humanities (given that the social and economic interfaces between sectors were the problem, not technological infrastructures). This includes research into: inequalities; social and economic trade-offs between resilience and efficiency; and factors that contribute to cohesive societies, build trust in institutions, and enhance social capital. They also contend that research on well-being needs to stress the importance of the value of ecosystems to well-being, rather than solely on wealth generated by economic activities.  

Of additional interest:


Editor’s comment:


Open access link to article:

Conflict of interest/ Funding:

This report was organized by the European Commission’s Standing Committee on Agricultural Research, and written by independent researchers.

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Corresponding author:

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