Has the Coronavirus crisis proved sustainable food sourcing is more than just a hygiene factor?

It’s impossible to ignore the vital role food has played in our experience of the COVID-19 crisis; from panic buying, to zoom dinner parties and banana bread baking all over Instagram.

Food is a powerful constant in our lives but this crisis has forced the vulnerability of our food supply chain – specifically how we get our food from farm to fork – into the spotlight. What struck us is the interconnectivity of it all; COVID-19 allegedly originating from a wet market where food safety standards were not respected has unleashed immense consequences for global health and safety, and almost every other facet of our society.

With this renewed interest in how our food reaches our plates, brands and business are expected to answer big questions: How is our food grown? How does it get to us? What impact does it have not only now, but on the climate crisis too?

Those businesses not able to ensure a safe, resilient, traceable and profitable supply of food, will risk being “buy-cotted” or regulated out of business.

Why? Because consumers, producers, customers and investors all demand food’s value is recognised and reflected, while people and planet treated as equal, essential partners to profit.

In the UK alone, three million people have ordered a vegetable box or directly from a farm for the first time, a clear shift in the value consumers place on knowing where their food comes from.

Supermarkets are taking bold action in support of farmers, with Tesco stocking white shelled eggs usually destined for McDonald’s and restaurant grade potatoes usually used by celebrity chefs to ease the glut of produce.

The opportunity for business: three areas to win post-COVID

1. Traceability

The food supply issues created by the crisis have ignited a conversation to better understand where our food comes from. Initial questions of “why can’t I buy flour?” soon moved to “where does flour come from, how is it farmed and how does it get to me?” and more pressingly, “why can I still not buy it?”.

The challenge of traceability isn’t just relevant to flour shortages. It speaks to a much bigger problem: global food security. Maximo Torero, assistant director-general at the UN Food and Agricultural Organization recently said: “Two months ago no one was really talking about food security, but now it is what everybody is talking about,” and the UN’s World Food Programme has also warned that the number of people facing acute food insecurity could double in 2020, largely prompted by the COVID-19 crisis.

Without traceability we are simply unable to get food to where it needs to go, so it’s those businesses who invest in and attain the most resilient and traceable supply chains who will be best placed to win consumers over and address this global challenge.

2. Planet-friendly farming

Every minute the world loses 23 hectares of farming land, yet with our growing population every day there are 160,000 more mouths to feed. A natural response to rising food demand has been to increase yields, by whatever means possible. But this has taken its toll, with food accounting for a quarter of global GHG emissions, and rising temperatures threatening crop yields. Stanford researchers now predict viruses like COVID-19 will become more common and destroy the biodiversity our food system depends on. The link between individual health and our planet’s health has never been clearer.

As we move out of lockdown, consumers will demand that the food industry reinvents the food system it’s built on to evolve the way our food is farmed, improve the resilience of the crops we eat, adopt new climate-smart practices, and protect the biodiversity crucial in so many aspects of our lives.

We challenge brands and businesses to look beyond carbon reduction and consider regenerative farming and biodiversity strategies as part of their sustainability plans.

3. Farmer wellbeing

A new debate emerged in lockdown: the wellbeing of key workers, only recently recognised as crucial to our day-to-day lives. This includes not only drivers and supermarket workers that worked hard to keep our shelves stacked but also farmers who have finally been heralded as heroes.

Our expectations of farmers – to farm the right way, have access to the right training, but also have the opportunity to build a sustainable livelihood – have been put to the test throughout the pandemic.

Many farmers have not been able to get their food to market, resulting in food shortages but also valuable produce such as milk and crops being dumped because they had nowhere to go. Farmers across Europe, as well as those who rely on seasonal farm work, have been challenged by social distancing measures, highlighting our reliance on migrant labour and the conditions they work in.

More than ever, this is an opportunity for businesses to build closer relationships with their unsung food heroes, listening and responding to their needs to enable more sustainable farming.

The spotlight on how our food is produced isn’t going away. The businesses who will be in a position to lead post-crisis, will be those looking to ensure their supply chains are traceable, protecting biodiversity and caring for farmers, for generations to come.