How will the coronavirus impact the future of our food system?


Picture of Florence Egal
Florence Egal

independent expert on sustainable food systems

In November 2019, the Future of Food Conference drew attention to the impact of climate change and population increase on food, and concluded that Europe needed to embark on a systemic and transformative journey towards food sustainability. It concluded that within the European Green Deal roadmap, food must be at the centre of public policy and Europeans must become actors of the food system.

Three months later, the emergence of COVID-19 has dramatically changed the scene and is forcing us to accelerate the journey towards food sustainability. Europe became the epicentre of the global outbreak in early March and most European countries have since faced lockdown or stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of the virus.

The epidemic spread from well-connected and vibrant cities with high costs of living and more cluttered housing conditions. In several countries, “health refugees” left towns before confinement became mandatory and means of transportation were grounded, either to reunite with their families, or to move to more spacious and healthy living environments, with obvious implications on the spread of the disease and on local food systems in both urban and rural areas.

Governments have committed to maintaining essential economic activities and food availability. In most European cities, food supply relies to a great extent on food imports and therefore long food chains. This supply has also become increasingly dependent in recent years on road transportation, to the detriment of rail freight, in spite of numerous warnings regarding its impact on the climate.

It is surprising that so little attention has apparently been paid to strengthening and rationalising rail freight within Europe

In times of COVID-19, road transportation is facing increasing problems in terms of administrative restriction of mobility and border controls, fear of contamination or logistical constraints, with disruptions in petrol stations and related catering and hygiene services. These disruptions have been given ample coverage in the media.

However, it is surprising that so little attention has apparently been paid to strengthening and rationalising rail freight within Europe. This could contribute to both emergency relief in the short term, and rehabilitation and crisis preparedness in the mid and longer term,

Farming activities, and in particular export-driven intensive agriculture, are facing major constraints. At a time when European countries shift from winter to the spring and summer season, which requires additional agricultural workforce, seasonal – often informal and/or migrant labourers – are no longer available, and disruptions and concerns for the long-term viability of existing value chains are growing.

In many countries, short food chains, including urban and peri-urban agriculture are not considered essential economic activities (in particular by many ministries of agriculture), and face logistical and organisational challenges. Farmers markets are either closed or their access is limited, with impacts on both small-scale farmers and consumers, at a time when demand for local, seasonal and organic foods, and fresh fruits and vegetables, is rising in European cities. And as schools close down, so do school canteens, with consequences both on social protection and on suppliers, including small-scale producers.

Interventions and partnerships that were once deemed impossible are now happening

The health situation is of course dramatic and is generating major social and economic problems, especially in the informal sector. But this unprecedented situation is also giving rise to an extraordinary surge of creativity and innovation to adapt to, and cope with, unexpected constraints. Promising practices are emerging everywhere. These of course vary widely according to the size and resources of cities, as well as local culture and lifestyles, but common threads can be found – these could inform a necessary transition towards more resilient food systems and more sustainable development in the post-crisis period.

Closed restaurants are reorienting their activities towards home-delivery or catering for essential workers (e.g. health staff), and their suppliers are likewise shifting to alternative retailing practices. Supermarkets are encouraged to purchase unsold food production with a view to limit waste and support farmers. Social protection programmes organise food distribution at neighbourhood collection centres and solidarity initiatives are emerging to assist the most vulnerable, including quarantined persons, elderly people alone and homeless people.

Consumers have re-discovered cooking at home, and fast food has become less readily available. In some cases, there has been a shift away from supermarkets, forcing local food shops to adapt to increased demand. Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) has had to reorganise and further develop their distribution systems with priority to home-delivery, including for vulnerable households. Food hubs and e-commerce ICT platforms are providing options for both consumers and producers. In rural areas, there is a revival of small shops and traditional solidarity systems, and some villages perceive the present situation as an opportunity to correct previous dysfunctions. And in urban areas, people have (re)discovered their neighbourhoods.

Interventions and partnerships that were once deemed impossible are now happening. While heads of state make the headlines in the media, the role of local authorities has been essential from the start. They have joined forces with civil society and the private sector to address the situation. Regulations have been waived or modified. Information technology has proven to be the most effective way to link demand and supply, share experiences, coordinate emergency responses, and plan for the post-crisis period. And people are increasingly aware that the virus spread in the way it did because of major economical, social and political dysfunctions, and that the world after COVID-19 will have to be different.

There is a broad consensus that the current situation reflects major dysfunctions in our policies

In 2015, about a hundred mayors signed the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact and committed their cities to promoting more sustainable food systems.  By the time the pandemic struck, the number of signatory cities, 80 of which come from the European Union, had doubled. It is interesting to note that the interventions that have taken place happen to be consistent with the recommendations of the plan of action.

Food has become a priority for both municipal authorities and locked-down households and more and more people are becoming active players and citizens rather than passive customers.  Some degree of re-localisation of agriculture, with increased production and consumption of local and seasonal foods is acknowledged as an important dimension of resilience and livelihoods. Short food chains and social protection for food access are making the headlines.  And the link of the pandemic with climate change and unsustainable agriculture practices is widely acknowledged.

There is a broad consensus that the current situation reflects major dysfunctions in our policies and an excessive emphasis on globalisation and privatisation in the last decades. Dealing with this crisis therefore offers an opportunity to rebalance policies and support local action for a more resilient, just and sustainable Europe. Governments should seize this opportunity and support food chains, as they could offer a pathway towards more resilient food systems. This would mean reversing, to some extent, recent trends in terms of food storage, processing and cooling facilities.

The recent weeks have shown the difficulties of putting together a common European response to the crisis, with each government adopting their own, sometimes contradictory, strategies. But the response to coronavirus has also had an upside: it has shown the wealth of innovation, creativity and solidarity that is taking place at the local level and the importance of local food systems in contributing to food security and healthy diets. Collecting, reviewing, and disseminating relevant experience and tools for use in the European Union, and promoting sustainable food systems in relevant bioregions, will be important to articulate both a post-Covid  strategy and preparedness plans for similar crises in future.

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