This article originally appeared on the Sydney Environment Institute’s blog.
“Our collective response to the Covid-19 pandemic must plant the seed for more resilient, more sustainable food systems”
David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme
Food is connection and sustenance, it is cultural, social, ethical, political and a fundamental human right. In the Anthropocene, food is also complex and problematic. The current pandemic offers an opportunity to re-examine and re-imagine our food systems, building resilience to complex shocks and disruptions whilst addressing many of the key concerns around food security in the face of climate change.
Food insecurity is largely invisible in Australia, shielded by supermarket shelves that are always stocked, fresh produce without seasonality, vague provenance and little or no indication of the social or environmental impacts, with convenience and price being forefront. Our food system has faced a cascade of recent shocks, drought, bushfire, flood and now a pandemic. The monumental global shift caused wide ranging, rapidly unfolding, unprecedented impacts, from the closure of food businesses, to restricted movement of people and freight, reduced production capacity, empty supermarket shelves and looming labour shortages. COVID-19 has tested the limits of our food system, lifting the veil in a visual, visceral way.
However, in the midst of the shutdowns and chaos, people started to take an active role, turning to local fruit and vegetable box schemes, spending more time cooking and even growing their own. For the first time, food security was on the collective radar. Now that the initial shock waves have dissipated and we have prepared ourselves for a marathon, not a sprint, questions are being asked about how to harness this momentum to facilitate long term change.
“To experience a crisis is to inhabit a world that is temporarily up for grabs.”
As part of the Master of Sustainability, my Capstone research focuses on the impacts of COVID-19 on food systems in Australia, through the lenses of resilience and fair food. The aim is to develop a deeper understanding of the social, environmental and economic drivers and impacts, and the implications for developing more sustainable and fair food systems. My approach is investigative and exploratory, using mixed methodologies with a systems view. A review of the academic, grey and popular literature, as well as secondary data, has provided a foundation and highlighting the current discourse at global and local levels. Following this, I will be conducting a series of interviews with a variety of people working across diverse areas, from farm to fork and beyond.
A lack of consumer awareness is highlighted as a major barrier to sustainable food systems, so developing effective communication strategies that both inform and increase engagement is key. To this end, my research will be presented as a podcast series, bridging the divide between academia and a general audience, in an accessible, digestible way. Narrative is a powerful way of making meaning and connection, the ABC’s War on Waste and the film 2040, for example, both effectively tackled big, complex issues in ways that produced a tangible shift. In a recent interview, 2040 director Damon Gameau spoke about the “crisis of imagination” in communication and the need to “get people at the heart level and communicate to them of things that they really value”. Food is a universal motivator, it is something we can all relate to and understand the meaning of its absence. Reflecting on the hopeful approach of 2040, Gameau “thought there was room to still pose the problem but put the problem in the framework of a solution… and use that as a motivator”. Adopting this approach, the podcast will explore the issues of food system resilience through COVID-19, connect these issues to longer term food security and sustainability, develop the narrative of the pandemic as an opportunity and highlight the ways people can activate change. The overarching aim is to open up conversations that help facilitate a shift from consumers to eaters and active participants in food.
Food Systems and Change
Food systems both contribute to and are adversely affected by climate change, with related activities and outcomes feeding back into environmental and socioeconomic systems. There are resounding calls of concern about the future of food production and long-term productivity in Australia. The pandemic has been positioned as a tipping point, happening in the shadow of climate change, highlighting the fragility of socio-economic systems and the risks of a return to business-as-usual. There is much discussion about how we ‘build back better’, a sentiment echoed across food and nutrition dialogues. However, to do that we need to reflect on the fundamentals of what the food system is for and why. We need to ask: What can we learn from the pandemic? What are the ongoing implications? What underlying issues have been highlighted? What have been the positive outcomes? How can these be sustained, developed and grown? What barriers need addressing?
Resilience and Diversity
Food system resilience is a necessary predictor of food security, however apparent food security does not equate to resilience. During the pandemic, the message from government that we are a food secure nation has been loud and clear, but with rising demand for food relief, this narrative masks deeper inequities and vulnerabilities. Producing enough food to feed 75 million people doesn’t indicate that all 25 million Australian’s have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food, only that our food system is heavily geared towards exporting our natural capital through commodity crops.
Resilience is defined as the “capacity over time of a food system and its units at multiple levels, to provide sufficient, appropriate and accessible food to all, in the face of various and even unforeseen disturbances”. Resilience is not an either/or proposition, rather a more or less measure of the capacity to withstand, absorb, recover and adapt to disturbances. Nor is it a fixed state, it needs to be built into the food system and constantly evaluated and developed in response to changes. A variety of indicators may be used to measure resilience across different contexts, with a study of the Queensland floods finding that key elements of food system resilience were scale, diversity, responsiveness and cohesion. Diversity is needed across all aspects, from the food we eat, to the people who grow, produce and sell it, the scale of production, the length of supply chains and locations our food is sourced from. Diversity is important as control over food gives control over people, however, this is one attribute Australia’s food system is sorely lacking.
“The future of humanity is defined by the future of food”
Commission for the Human Future 
Food is a wicked problem, it is intimately woven through every layer of our environment, society, culture and bodies, changes in one aspect of the food web have flow on effects across the network. The complexity and enormity of the issues we face can seem both overwhelming and impossible. However, this embeddedness also provides an opportunity to unite people around something we all have a stake in and could be a powerful vehicle for driving change both within and far beyond the food system. The time is now and the only way to eat the proverbial elephant, is One Bite at a time.
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