The COVID-19 crisis has led to significant disruptions in food supply chains, volatility in food production and consumption as well as surprising and innovative partnerships. This exacerbated fragilities and amplified and intensified debates about food sustainability, security, and autonomy that were already ongoing. To facilitate an exchange of perspectives on the challenges and opportunities facing our food system, The Shift organised a virtual discussion on 8 June 2020.
Vital importance of food supply chains
In the wake of the declaration of a global pandemic, many governments, including Belgium, designated economic activity along food supply chains as vitally important. Furthermore, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Director-General, Qu Dongyu, recommended governments strengthen local production and shorten food supply chains. In parallel to these developments, the EU Commission launched its flagship Farm2Fork food policy proposal. It explicitly recognises that the ‘interrelations between our health, ecosystems, supply chains, consumption patterns and planetary boundaries’ require ‘a collective approach involving public authorities … private-sector actors … non-governmental organisations, social partners, academics and citizens.’
In this spirit, Tim Lammens, Vice-President of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability of Delhaize shared how Delhaize was able to forge partnerships based on ‘solidarity with and from our customers as well as within the sector.’ Illustrating that collaborations can extent to competition, Delhaize ‘launched a common project with Colruyt … to deliver to people working in the health sector through shared home delivery.’ Even though difficult to envision months ago, partnerships with different actors are possible in a very short period and can accelerate impact.
Such partnerships must extend globally as our food system is characterisedby unequal and uneven development. Chris Claes, Executive Director of Rikolto International, emphasised that COVID-19 exacerbates existing inequalities and that partnerships with actors in the Global South are key to addressing this. Rikolto posits that from a long-term perspective, it is necessary to ‘lookfurther than the supply chains, further than the commodity itself … and look at the wellbeing of the partners.’ The decommodification of food reduces the dependencies of producers on external markets, while diversification also increases resilience.
A comprehensive approach
Nicholas Courant, the Communications Director of FEVIA, echoed the need for diversification while stressing that it is important to recognise current resilience, as ‘the food system has not collapsed.’ There are also comparative advantages of specific soils, climatic conditions, and technological infrastructures that render import/export beneficial. Nevertheless, agreements at the EU-level, like the Farm2Fork proposal, can render this system more sustainableby ‘looking beyond price and affordability’ and ‘avoiding a rat race to the bottom.’
Beyond the EU, international cooperationat largeprovides a vital pivot for sustainability. Sofie van Waeyenberge, Coordinator Agriculture/Rural Development of ENABEL elucidated how global challenges, such as urbanisation, demography, growing inequalities, and climate change are expressed in our food systems, which in turn contribute significantly to such challenges, especially through land use and emissions. As such, ‘a comprehensive approach is needed ‘to reduce, in a systemic way, vulnerability to future shocks,’ while increasing inclusivity through ‘more equity within the food chains … and protecting the most vulnerable.’ Empowering marginalised groups and facilitating linkages between different actors within the food systems, including consumers provide opportunities to identify solutions that enhance resilience and sustainability.
Given the centrality of partnerships between different types of actors throughout the discussion, The Shift’s is convinced that a multistakeholder approach should take centre stage in catalysing the transition of our food systems. It will be critical to ensure intensive and even-handed partnership brokerage if we are to face the current and pending challenges. Only by fostering and nourishing partnerships between the many actors throughout the entire food system can we truly enhance sustainability and resilience