In 2009, Sir John Beddington, the then Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, forecast a "perfect storm" of food shortages, scarce water, and insufficient energy resources by 2030.

In that speech he spoke of a possible crisis by 2030 whereby "a whole series of events come together":

  • The world's population will rise from 6bn to 8bn (33%).
  • Demand for food will increase by 50%.
  • Demand for water will increase by 30%.
  • Demand for energy will increase by 50%.

Yet Beddington offered hope. He was optimistic that scientists could come up with solutions to the problems. He said: "We need investment in science and technology, and all the other ways of treating very seriously these major problems. 2030 is not very far away."

We are becoming increasingly aware of how critical drivers can come together to create a ‘perfect storm’ - and the Covid-19 pandemic is no different. One of these drivers is the increasing recognition that the causes of the pandemic, the estimated economic costs of which globally range between $8‐16 trillion, are closely related to human encroachment on the natural environment, biodiversity loss, climate change and the structure of our food system (IPBES 2020 Workshop Report on Biodiversity and Pandemics).

Along with the impact on consumer behaviour, health systems, and economies, the Covid-19 pandemic has had an impact on the global food system - and just as in Beddington’s scenario, it’s not just one event that has exposed these strengths and weakness. Change was underway before the pandemic, however, quarantining and lockdowns have driven increases in online shopping. Strong ethical and environmental drivers are influencing consumer food choices - illustrating how quickly behaviours can change, and the newly redundant or self‐employed people who lost their source of income due to the pandemic has exacerbated an already increasing reliance on food banks and charity support for low-income sections of society. For the UK, Brexit adds in an additional layer of complexity.

An opportunity to build back better

But just as in Beddington’s ‘perfect storm’ scenario there is hope, and scientists and researchers are working hard to come up with solutions to these problems.

There is no doubt that recovering from the pandemic will be challenging, yet this recovery gives us an opportunity to rebuild the food system and address wider threats to society. The Covid-19 recovery can be used as an opportunity to progress actions that support the UN Sustainable Development Goals, redevelop our relationship with the environment, and look at how we work with nature to meet our physical and wellbeing needs, which could result in healthier diets.

The UK Covid‐19 Food and Nutrition Security project is a ‘rapid response’ project consisting of a consortium led by The James Hutton Institute in collaboration with Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs) and Cranfield University.

The project, which lasts one year, is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, and is assessing the ongoing impact of Covid‐19 on the four pillars of food and nutrition security:

  • Access.
  • Availability.
  • Utilisation.
  • Stability.

It will examine the food system, how it is responding, and the potential knock-on effects on the UK’s food and nutrition security - both in terms of the cascading risks from the pandemic and other threats.

The study provides an opportunity to place the initial lessons being learnt from the ongoing responses to the pandemic, in relation to food and nutrition security, in the context of other long‐term challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem resiliency. It will also provide government, businesses, and other decision-makers with evidence to help develop robust food systems that deliver food and nutrition security and which are better placed to respond to the current pandemic, future risks, and opportunities.

Build resilience to deal with future disruption

As highlighted by Dr Simon Harwood in a recent article on connected resilience, the pandemic has exposed weaknesses in various systems and organisations - underlining the need to build in resilience. We also need to re-evaluate what we mean by food system resilience – ‘resilience for whose benefit: the food industry or consumers (and within each of these groups)?’, ‘what does resilience look like’, and ‘how do we achieve it?’

It is likely that the global impacts of the pandemic, particularly the economic effects, will affect food and nutrition security over the coming years. However, if there is one thing that we learned about our world in 2020, it is that in addition to addressing the current crisis, we must also build resilience in order to deal with future disruption from climate and biodiversity emergencies. The Covid‐19 Food and Nutrition Security project is part of this response as it aims to provide additional insights to inform strategic planning and solution development. Through these insights, we can enhance our ability to anticipate, prepare, learn, and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions so that we can create food systems that not only survive, but prosper.