Duncan Williamson sees a key opportunity to redesign our food systems to work for people, animals and the planet
There can be no question that the COVID-19 pandemic was a direct result of human behaviour and how we exploit the natural world. 75% of new infectious diseases are zoonotic*, transmitted from animals to people. They emerge when people trade, consume or encroach on the habitats of plants and animals, as we have seen with the emergence of COVID-19 from a wet market in China.
One of the main causes of encroachment is the food system** driven by changing consumption patterns. Once this crisis passes, we will have a once in a lifetime opportunity to redesign our food system to work with animals, nature and rural communities to deliver health benefits for all people.
Without adaptation and changes to our relationship with the natural world and the food system, this pandemic will not be the last.
A fragile system shows its faults
Coronavirus has exposed the fragility at the heart of our global food system, increased centralisation and a reliance on a dwindling number of producers, supply chain actors, retailers, and crop, fish and animal species. When systemic disruptions hit our complex, global supply chains and “just in time” networks the faults become clear.
Food insecurity is exacerbated, businesses close and food is discarded before leaving the farm. In some countries people face the stark choice of going hungry due to lack of money or catching the virus by going to work. And food prices continue to go up.
All this is before we feel the future impacts of a disrupted farm system at harvest time at home and abroad.
It’s not just that supply chains are weakening. Our national food systems are also supplying less diverse food. Our diets have become monotonous and over-reliant on a few staple crops, with a few added herbs and spices. Look at the ingredients in a ready meal, sandwich or what is on offer in your local takeaway.
It’s time to flip this.
The food system is broken; now we have an opportunity to fix it
People – once they have realised the fragility of the current systems – are showing a willingness to help and a desire for change. They are reconnecting with their food, traditions and culture. Communities are coming together and looking out for each other.
More than ever, people want to ensure that healthy nutritious food is available for all. This requirement must underpin the food system we transition to.
Our food system must be underpinned by the ABCDE of diversity – agricultural, biological, cultural, dietary and economic – which are mutually supportive.
Diverse diets can reduce micronutrient deficiencies***, provide a rich source of nutrients all year round and can result in increased incomes for farmers. They respect nature and seasonality, build on our heritage and can even save us money.
The role of people as citizens in this change – overseeing the transition to a healthy future, not just for our children but for all of us – cannot be underestimated.
Active citizens, not passive consumers, Indigenous peoples, farmers and others must be more actively engaged in setting the agenda for our future food systems to deliver healthy food from a nature-friendly farming system.
* Salyer SJ, Silver R, Simone K, Barton Behravesh C. Prioritizing Zoonoses for Global Health Capacity Building—Themes from One Health Zoonotic Disease Workshops in 7 Countries, 2014–2016. Emerg Infect Dis. 2017;23(13). https://dx.doi.org/10.3201/eid2313.170418
** Kissinger, G., Herold, M. and De Sy, V. (2012) Drivers of Deforestation and Forest Degradation: A Synthesis Report for REDD+ Policymakers. Lexeme Consulting, Vancouver Canada.
*** Lachat, C. et al 2017 Dietary species richness as a measure of food diversity and nutritional quality of diets https://www.bioversityinternational.org/e-library/publications/detail/dietary-species-richness-as-a-measure-of-food-biodiversity-and-nutritional-quality-of-diets/#&gid=news&pid=0