Priorities for Food System Transformation in Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic

WHILE THERE HAVE been discussions on how countries can adapt to the “new normal” in the post-pandemic phase, the data show that the COVID-19 pandemic remains a critical issue today. This is because of its ability to mutate, which manifests its traits of resilience and adaptation.

The pandemic’s trait of adaptation is something which, perhaps, society should develop, in the case of food systems transformation. The societal response should be to adapt to the “normal” in the current pandemic phase, recognising that the COVID-19 pandemic could continue to evolve, and that further pandemics can emerge, vaccines notwithstanding.

Achilles’ heel in supply chains, not food production

 The direction of food system transformation should address the key challenges brought about by the pandemic. First, the pandemic’s main impact is not in the rural food production process. The risk of infection in food and agricultural production is not as high as in the case of the industrial and services sectors in cities. This is because there is a greater expanse of space in rural areas where food is produced, with a lower density of individuals and thus, a lower risk of person-to-person infection.

Rather, society’s key problem has been in the supply chains, which have indirect impacts on the food production process. The downstream aspect of the supply chain includes processing, retail and distribution of food, post-production.

Second, during a pandemic, when individuals cannot go out to eat in restaurants, and especially in the case of restaurants that are not yet digitally integrated (i.e., the absence of ecommerce which is needed for food deliveries), the restaurants’ ability to reach consumers is significantly reduced. This results in a reduction in restaurant sales, and in turn, leads restaurants to reduce their demand for farm goods. In turn, farmers will inevitably set lower production targets by ordering fewer seeds, reducing the size of the area planted, and minimising the use of fertilizers and other production input.

One way that the pandemic impacts food supplies therefore is not in making rural production of food more difficult, but rather, in how it short-circuits the system of incentives influencing food production. Over time, the tussle between locking down and opening up, which we can observe today with the 2nd and 3rd waves of the pandemic, can lead to further perturbations and coordination challenges between producers and consumers. These factors cause more periods of food price inflation as producers adjust, given the long gestation periods required and the seasonality of food production.

Digital integration as imperative

 The challenges above occur as a result of the failure of the retail and distribution sector to digitally integrate. However, this will not happen, if consumers themselves are not in the habit of making internet purchases, which in turn draws from the insufficiency of telecommunications and transport infrastructure in less developed areas. These challenges therefore provide a direction for a needed digital transformation in the food sector, in response to future novel contagious diseases similar to the COVID-19 pandemic.

By The Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre)
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)
Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore