Covid-19 has had an impact on food systems globally. In the UK, we’ve seen changes in demand for certain crops, changes in shoppers’ habits and discussions around the impact of diet on susceptibility to becoming seriously ill from the virus. The outbreak has exposed both strengths and weaknesses in our food system. But how can we implement the lessons learned from Covid-19 to ensure that our food system is prepared for, and resilient in the face of future challenges such as climate change? Dr Paul Burgess, Reader in Crop Ecology and Management, provides an ecological perspective on the interrelationship between the UK food system and Covid-19.

Covid-19 is having major effects on the global food system that uses the Earth’s stocks and flows to feed almost 8 billion people.  In the UK, agriculture uses 72% of the land area and the food sector employs about 4 million people, one eighth of the UK workforce1.  Despite the success of the global and UK food sector in producing a diverse range of safe food, there are problems. These have been outlined by Tim Lang in his book, Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them2, and more recently in Part 1 of the National Food Strategy (2020), led by Henry Dimbleby, published in July 20203.  Part 1 of the National Food Strategy reports that the food sector is associated with about 20% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, and poor diets are considered to be responsible for about 90,000 early deaths per year3, about one sixth of the UK total. 

There are many ways of examining the interrelationships between the UK food system and the effect of Covid-19. In 2009, theoretical ecologist Robert Ulanowicz wrote a book called A Third Window4, where he describes some of the fundamental processes of complex ecological systems. In particular, he outlines three process-based axioms focused on the role of unique disruptive events, feedback mechanisms, and the way in which history is materially captured in systems. Although the focus of Ulanowicz’s work was on small ecosystems, these axioms provide a useful viewpoint to examine the interactions between COVID-19 and the UK food system.

The disruptive and diverse effects of COVID-19
Robert Ulanowicz’s first axiom is that “the operation of any system is vulnerable to disruption from chance events”4. This has certainly been the situation in terms of the effect of Covid-19 on the UK food system.  While some commentators have argued about L and V-shaped responses of the UK economy to the pandemic, Peter Atwater5 has proposed that the economic responses to Covid-19 are following the pattern of the letter K.  There is a divergence of responses: some businesses have faced a major downward trajectory, some have benefited, and many sit somewhere in between - adapting to market changes. 

Covid-19 is having very severe negative effects on incomes and employment in the hospitality sector which typically supplies about 20-25% of the calories of the UK population.  The closure of hotels, restaurants, cafes and canteens has led to about two-thirds of jobs in the accommodation and food service sector being at risk6, and a major challenge for the food sector has been to re-direct food from “out of home” to “home” purchasing. One example is fresh produce that was previously directed towards food on the move, e.g. sandwiches and salads. Sales of crops like lettuce and spinach fell overnight by about 80% and only recovered to about 40% of pre-Covid-19 by late July7. Early on, there was an associated move towards large scale shopping (like the weekly or fortnightly shops that were commonplace about 20 years ago). This changed the outlook of shoppers, who were wary of exposure to Covid-19 and arguably over-purchased shelf-stable products and reduced purchases of some fresh commodities with short shelf lives and high value, such as strawberries. These trends led to major losses of fresh produce either through shelf wastage or being ploughed back into the land. In contrast, a herb business near Cambridge rapidly developed a website to enable supply to domestic consumers and was able to redirect much of its previously scheduled produce for the food service sector to domestic consumers. As within any ecosystem, the effects of disruption on different areas can be varied including winners and those relatively unaffected.  Food and on-line retailers in particular have benefited from increased food sales. By contrast, I have heard from one farmer, who manages a small family dairy farm that uses farm-grown animal feed, that the key impact has simply been a reduction in the number of salespeople.  

Feedback loops:  the circle of poverty, dietary health and susceptibility to illness, and the health and environmental benefits of dietary improvements.
The second axiom postulated by Ulanowicz is that “a process, via mediation by other processes, may be capable of influencing itself”4. In any system, there can be self-reinforcing or stabilising feedback loops, which can have beneficial or detrimental effects. One of the detrimental self-reinforcing feedback loops in the UK food system, even before Covid-19, is the vicious circle of poverty, poor dietary health, and greater susceptibility to illness. Covid-19 has reinforced this feedback and the end of the furlough scheme will lead to reduced incomes for many households. In turn, as highlighted by the National Food Strategy, poverty is associated with poor diets, and diet-related illness is one of the top three factors related to Covid-19 deaths3. Some of these problems are particularly acute in the UK where income inequality, levels of obesity, and consumption of processed foods is higher than many countries in Europe8. By contrast a beneficial reinforcing feedback loop, as highlighted by a Cranfield study led by Adrian Williams9, is that a move to a healthier diet, termed the Eatwell plate, would provide both health and environmental benefits.

The importance of the history of a system

The third axiom postulated by Ulanowicz is that “systems differ from one another according to their history, some of which is recorded in their material configuration”4.  The effect of these differences is evident in the success of different countries in controlling Covid-19.  Some countries such as South Korea and Taiwan which have previously been subjected to viruses such as SARS, have more successfully controlled the spread of Covid-19 than countries such as the UK where we have minimal recent experience of such pandemics. At a household level in the UK, an effect of Covid-19 will be to encourage households, where they are able, to retain higher stocks of flour, pasta, rice, and toilet rolls.

Preparing for the next crisis: responses to Covid-19 could inform improvements to the food system in the context of climate change.
The ecological axioms from Ulanowicz highlight the role of unique disruptions, feedback, and history in how a system is configured and operates.  Looking forward, an important question for the UK is how we respond to the current pandemic to prepare for the next crisis. According to the World Economic Forum10, the three most likely and impactful crises on the world economy are likely to be extreme weather, lack of climate action, and biodiversity loss.  While the National Food Strategy3 reports that our food system has been “fairly robust” in response to Covid-19, “it is not well prepared for the dangers of climate change: floods, droughts, rising sea temperatures and shifting weather patterns, all of which could lead to catastrophic harvest failures and food shortages.”

Therefore, it is important to identify ways in which responses to Covid-19 may also be used, where possible, to improve the performance and resilience of the food system in the context of global climate change. There are a range of approaches comprising a focus on technology, a prioritisation of ecological solutions11, and the use of economics to ensure that environmental externalities are fully costed in the market.

Dr Paul Burgess, Dr Adrian Williams, Dr Jacqueline Hannam, Professor Jim Harris, and Caroline Keay from Cranfield University have begun a research project with the James Hutton Institute (led by Dr Mike Rivington) and Chatham House, to assess the impacts and likely consequences on the UK’s food and nutrition security during and after the Covid-19 pandemic12. The one-year study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, seeks to assess the current response, identify points of vulnerability, and evaluate options to improve food and nutrition security that are compatible with climate and biodiversity goals. 

Dr Paul Burgess, Reader in Crop Ecology and Management, Cranfield Soil and Agrifood Institute


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4. Ulanowicz RE (2009) A Third Window: Natural Life beyond Newton and Darwin. Templeton Press.
5. Atwater P (2020) The gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening sharply. The Financial Times, 9 Sept.
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9. Williams A, Morris J, Audsley E, Hess T, Goglio P, Burgess P, Chatterton J, Pearn K, Mena C, Whitehead P (2018) Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Healthier Diets. Final Report to Defra on project FO0427. Bedfordshire: Cranfield University.  96 pp.
10. World Economic Forum (2020). The Global Risks Report 2020. Switzerland: WEF.
11. Burgess PJ, Harris J, Graves AR, Deeks LK (2019) Regenerative Agriculture: Identifying the Impact; Enabling the Potential. Report for SYSTEMIQ. 17 May 2019. Bedfordshire, UK: Cranfield University
12. Cranfield University (2020). Food and Nutrition Security during and after the COVID-19 Pandemic