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Food Systems Innovation - Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste

Food Systems Innovation – Never let a crisis go to waste

Over the past decade, food businesses have created detailed maps of the terrain they wish to ‘conquer’ and developed operational guides and strategic briefs on how to achieve this. With COVID-19, the maps are really no longer accurate and many of the accompanying operational guides, no longer instructive. Food businesses, regardless of their technological capabilities, regardless of their size, regardless of their location, are faced with a new terrain and we must not make the rather fundamental error of using old maps to try to navigate a new world. Much of the published advice currently available from Government Agencies, Food Trade Organisations, Investment Companies, and leading Consultancy firms like McKinsey & Co, fails to fully acknowledge the new world we are in. Why is this?

We must not make the rather fundamental error of using old maps to try to navigate a new world

Firstly, we have never made a successful vaccine for a coronavirus before. Developing a vaccine for viruses that infect the upper respiratory tract is extremely difficult. If we are successful at developing a vaccine, the testing, production, and vaccination process will take several years to complete. So, the threat of continual transmission amongst the global populace from a deadly virus that we still know very little about (this is a novel coronavirus) will be with us for a long time. Business advice that seeks to reassure business owners and investors alike, arguing that there will be a return to previous levels of trade and that the tried and tested business models of old will work well, is misguided at best.

Clear evidence linking the emergence of the novel coronavirus directly to the forces shaping our food economy

Secondly and most importantly, there is now clear evidence linking the emergence of the novel coronavirus directly to the forces shaping our food economy. With the increased commodification of food and the intensification of the industrial food production systems that it relies upon, we have tied our future to a world food economy that is literally, killing us. We know that this emergence is not an isolated incident (H5N1, Sars, Mers, Swine Flu, Ebola, Zika, etc). We also know that novel pathogens are coming strong and fast and that these are linked directly to the industrial model of agriculture and specifically to the production of livestock and intensive farming that form a core part of that system.

The spillover of pathogens is happening in a very specific context and through very specific processes which runs something like this: adopt the model of industrial farming, create large scale pig and poultry production at the edge of domesticated space, i,e, in prime forest, destroy natural habitat and the systems of checks and balances in these environments, and get spillover of new pathogens.

Emergence of pathogens is also linked to two further important conditioning factors, global warming, and deforestation

The fact that the global mean temperature at the Earth’s surface reached 1°C above pre-industrial levels back in 2015 and that this is over and above what would have been the planet’s natural temperature otherwise, should alarm all of us. We know that entire habitats are forever altered at this level of temperature change and that with habitat destruction comes the movement of entire species into the unknown. This is yet another key driver behind the emergence of pandemics.

Deforestation is accelerating at a phenomenal pace. An area of forest the size of the UK is being lost every year around the world, most of it tropical rainforest. This amounts to something like 26m hectares (64m acres) a year. The burning of forests to clear land for the raising of livestock is well known and again, directly linked to the emergence of novel pathogens.

It is clear that what we are now living through is the consequence of the destruction of our ecosystems on a massive scale and undertaken in part by transnational food companies backed by international finance and world-wide governments and their representatives (China, United States, European Union, Brasil, etc) . That world governments and financial institutions fail to comment on the link between the emergence of the virus and the way the global food economy is structured, is as unsurprising as it is telling.

Acknowledging the link, will require us to radically alter our food systems.

If we can begin to see the interdependencies between the destruction of ecosystems, population increase, global warming, intensification of factory farming, new systems of wild animal slaughter, the loss of the biodiversity, deforestation and, of course, new and emerging pandemics, we should also recognise that we have the insight and knowledge to change this.  How the food industry and food service sector respond to the present crisis, will be critical to the future of humanity itself.

Where do we go from here?

Our food production systems must be fundamentally changed and the treatment of food as a commodity must end. It is clear that the move away from food and eating as a source of nourishment and as a cultural event to celebrate and towards product, sale, trade and transaction, has jeopardized the health of us all.

Viewed from this vantage point, we can also see that the pandemic has now brought key segments of the world’s food service sector to an abrupt halt. Restaurants, coffee shops, pubs, catering companies and food retail, whose business and operational models are intricately dependent upon the very same world food economy that has brought us here, are largely closed and desperately looking for ways to ‘survive and thrive’.

Fortunately, innovation in this sector is alive and well with much fascinating work now underway, planning and developing systems that align with sustainable farming, sustainable consumption, sustainable distribution and sustainable packaging, etc. There is increasing recognition that adjustments to our former way of working that take no account of the ‘new world’ or changes that make no attempt to address the systemic and structural problems that exist, are effectively being implemented to prop-up highly fragile dependencies at the heart of a highly capitalised, industrialised food system that will continue to fail us all. Such interventions, although they may serve an ‘apparent need’, delivery of groceries, for instance, do very little to contribute to the real change which is needed for the long term. We need much more radical change.

Sustainabale Food Systems Innovation and Support

Improving our food production, distribution and service industries is one of the major challenges of our time. With security risks, emerging pathogens, pervasive hunger, malnutrition, obesity and environmental degradation escalating, our current food system requires significant change. This will involve a fundamental rethinking of structures and systems. Envisioning alternative systems of food production and food service that will nourish and support the health of a growing global population and provide economic development and security to the communities that support and depend upon it, is vitally necessary now. Work in Food Systems Innovation is as rewarding as it is urgent.

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