COVID-19 provides lessons for food systems reform, report finds

A man shops for groceries at a local market in Cairo, Egypt. Photo by: Roger Anis / IMF Photo / CC BY-NC-ND

While the COVID-19 pandemic has left millions unable to meet basic nutritional needs and disrupted supply chains, it also provides a window into opportunities for much-needed food systems reform, according to the 2021 Global Food Policy Report.

The annual report, produced by the International Food Policy Research Institute examined the impact COVID-19 has had on the world’s already fragile food systems. Lost income caused by lockdowns and mobility restrictions has increased global food insecurity, and the pandemic exposed drastic inequalities within food systems based on factors such as geography, gender, and socioeconomic status.

This means that simply “building back better” will not be sufficient, said report author and IFPRI Director General Johan Swinnen.

But an increase in social protection programs, swift rollout of new government policies to mitigate pandemic effects, and rapid private sector innovation are among the COVID-19 developments that serve as promising examples for how food systems reform can be accelerated to help meet the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, the report found.

“On one hand, there’s tremendous challenges ahead. But there’s also opportunities, and the lessons that we can learn from COVID have to help us … see the opportunities and invest in grabbing the opportunities,” Swinnen said.

“If you look back, the food system wasn’t in great shape before COVID started. … The idea of building something back actually was not a good idea. We thought we should build something differently.”

“Big changes can be done in a short term as long as the incentives are there and the will is there.”

— Johan Swinnen, director general, IFPRI

According to the report, an ideal food system has five attributes: It is efficient; contributes to global health; inclusive of smallholder farmers and other marginalized groups; environmentally sustainable; and resilient to more frequent shocks.

Food systems reform is needed to help meet the SDGs but also to prepare the world for the next shock, such as climate change or another pandemic, the report said. Ensuring the resilience of the food system and mitigating the impact of future shocks, Swinnen said, require limiting the magnitude or frequency of those shocks, providing alerts ahead of a shock’s arrival, and increasing capacity to absorb a shock.

The world’s low-income and vulnerable people — as well the planet — also stand to benefit from food systems reform. The report called 2021 a “year of urgency but also of hope” as the world increases vaccine distribution. Creativity and reform from both the public and private sectors also provide key lessons.

“From the government side, a lot of things have been made possible by trying to respond to the crucial bottlenecks rapidly. On the private sector side, there’s been a lot of innovation on value chains,” Swinnen said. “We are changing things now at the pace that normally would have taken us 15 years or something to do, but we just have to.”

Swinnen said the acceleration of e-commerce was much more rapid during the pandemic than it otherwise would have been, and there was also swift growth in digital innovation. NGOs, in addition to governments and the private sector, were forced to come up with new ways of programming, such as figuring out how to get children the nutritious meals they’d typically receive at school while buildings were closed.

Part of our The Future of Food Systems series

Find out how we can make food fair and healthy for all. Join the conversation using the hashtag #FoodSystems and visit our The Future of Food Systems page for more coverage.

Swinnen noted in the report’s foreword that 2021 is the year of global summits on food systems, climate, and nutrition. The United Nations is hosting a Food Systems Summit in September in New York and the annual Climate Change Conference in November in Glasgow, Scotland. The government of Japan is hosting the Nutrition for Growth Summit in December.

This provides “an unusual opportunity for the world to choose radical change,” he said.

“The fact that, for example, some of these technological innovations now in value chains are introduced in a much shorter time … means that people realize it can be done,” Swinnen said. “Big changes can be done in a short term as long as the incentives are there and the will is there.”

Visit the Future of Food Systems series for more coverage on food and nutrition — and importantly, how we can make food fair and healthy for all. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #FoodSystems.

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Senior Reporter at Devex. She has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.