We live in a world dominated by the neo-liberal idea that consumption-driven growth
of economies, accessing globalised trade, is the best way to drive global development.
Global competition drives down prices, allowing countries with comparative advantage
to create goods for consumption elsewhere. Efficiency, in the name of cheaper goods,
means redundancy is removed. The food system is a crucial exemplar of this: in the
UK food comes into the country at more-or-less the speed it is sold in supermarkets.
The downside from supplying an abundance of cheap goods is that the globalised system
is also fragile. If it breaks, then goods we rely on disappear off shelves and prices
rocket. In 2007/2008 and again in 2010/2011 climate shocks, coupled with low transparency
of international stocks, led to the perception that food would be rare, countries
instituted export bans, markets panicked, international food prices spiked, and food
riots broke out around the world (Homer-Dixon et al. 2015; Puma et al. 2015). Amongst
other things, the food price riots sparked the Arab Spring (Natalini et al. 2017),
contributing to a long-lasting geo-political reconfiguration of the Middle East.
The last decade’s food price spikes created a focus on the potential for climate-change
driven disruptions on food systems (Challinor et al. 2018). Climate change is not
only about new extremes of weather that may disrupt on our food systems, but is also
likely to create new challenges through new pests and diseases of crops and livestock,
that disrupt agriculture: as climate changes, pests and diseases move, and there are
opportunities for them to escape from natural ecological mechanisms that keep them
under control (Bebber et al. 2013). These same issues also affect the diseases that
infect wildlife, and, potentially humans: like most emerging diseases, COVID-19 comes
As we change ecology, through habitat loss, degradation and climate change we change
the way animals, reservoirs, vectors and pathogens mix, paving the way for pathogens
to leap into new hosts. Couple this with increasing urbanisation, wildlife encroaching
on cities and people and animals interacting in new ways, emerging diseases may, likely
climate change itself, be seen as a symptom of environmental degradation (Brooks et
In other words, extreme as it is, perhaps COVID is not a one-off, but more an exemplar
of the short of disruptive shocks we need to adapt to in the Anthropocene.
As countries have locked-down to reduce COVID-19 spread, it has exposed the strengths
and weaknesses of our food systems. Shoppers “stocking up”, in response to rational
needs, have led to empty shelves that just-in-time supply chains have struggled to
cope with. Vulnerable people have been exposed by their inability to get to shops
as home-delivery systems have been swamped by demand. Food prices are rising locally
and globally. The amount of food available has not caused any problems to date: its
Looking ahead, however, there is a potential problem in supply. In the Northern Hemisphere,
planting is largely over, but harvesting is soon to come. What happens if the labour
is not available? Harvests in the early-maturing fresh produce areas in southern Europe
has been problematic due to “social distancing” and labour shortages.
In the southern hemisphere, harvesting is underway, just as lock-downs roll out. For
large scale mechanised farms, harvesting will continue, but for smaller farming systems,
manual labour is key. Will supply become an issue, as well as distribution? Some countries
clearly think so, as they start to introduce export bans to keep food within their
borders—exactly the policies that drove the last food price spikes.
Once harvests are done, farmers then have to decide what to plant. They therefore
have to bet on what foods there will be demand for in the following months. With so
much change in demand driven by changing markets, supply chains and lock-downs there
is huge uncertainty about what demand might be in the months ahead: will farmers make
the right decisions, and who will guide them, to ensure the effects of COVID do not
ripple into global food disruptions?
So COVID-19 might contribute to food supply issues in the following months. On top
of that, 2020 is already shaping up to be a very hot year from a climate perspective.
At a time when our food systems are under significant pressures, there is capacity
to absorb any other supply-side shock—whether from a drought, heatwave or locust swarm.
Recovery from a deep recession will be so much harder if food prices go through the
roof: the poor and vulnerable will, as ever, suffer most.
Will COVID-19, as an exemplar of a shock to our globalised systems, promote us to
reconstruct it in a way that puts people and the planet’s well-being at its heart?
Or will we simply seek to recover our unhealthy, unsustainable but consumption-promoting