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Article: COVID-19 shows food systems should focus on public good, sustainability experts say

15 April 2020

COVID-19 shows how food systems have been "under-valued and under-protected" for years and should now change their focus on becoming a public good, according to the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food).

Olivier De Schutter, co-chair of IPES-Food, argued that food systems have been "sitting on a knife-edge for decades" and that the coronavirus pandemic has revealed their critical weak spots.

"Children have been one school meal away from hunger, countries are one export ban away from food shortages, and farms are one travel ban away from critical labor shortages," he said.

In an analysis of 100 days of the coronavirus pandemic, IPES-Food found that global supply chains are strained with bottlenecks and export restrictions, revealing multiple vulnerabilities. They claim that these disruptions highlight how close to two billion people are living on the "cusp of hunger".

But while COVID-19 was found to have exposed such weaknesses and inequalities of the food system, IPES-Food also said that "the crisis has given a glimpse of new, more resilient ways of feeding communities".

Food systems as a public good

IPES-Food believes the response from COVID-19 must turn into lasting governance for "wellbeing and sustainability" which turns the entire food system into a public good, meaning society's benefit is given more of a focus than profits.

The European Commission currently has a group of scientific advisors that are researching how the bloc could support policies to move food from a commodity towards "more of a common good". This will feed into the Commission's upcoming Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy, which aims to develop more sustainable agri-food supply chains.

A preliminary report from the scientific advisors concluded that the EU must reduce food waste, change consumption patterns and "recontextualise how we think about food".

Professor Peter Jackson, the chair of the group and author of the report, said that "business as usual" is no longer an option and change is needed.

"Food is an incredibly complex system, with social, economic and ecological components. Yet, it contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions and plays a key role in driving climate change," he said.

The report also highlighted taxation as a key way to drive change in the food system. A report in February claimed that a "sustainability charge" on EU meat products could help generate €32 billion and help shift consumer behaviour towards greener diets.

The Commission's apparent shift in treating food systems as more of a public good has been welcomed by green groups in Brussels.

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