De-globalising in response to Covid-19 risks increasing vulnerabilities of the food system to future shocks
Covid-19 has increased the focus on food system resilience to provide the food we consume.
This has led to calls for shorter supply chains and localised food systems. However, the impact of the current distributed and complex global food system on resilience may be more positive than negative.
The prevailing rhetoric is that food system globalisation has reduced resilience, with the length, complexity and trans-nationality of supply chains given as evidence. However, the connection between complexity and reduced resilience is not axiomatic, and globalisation has more complex impacts on the capacity of the system to deal with different events than such rhetoric suggests.
Globalisation is associated with harms (e.g., increased environmental degradation and a rise in obesity) as well as benefits (e.g., reductions in undernutrition and childhood stunting), and the ability to deal with shocks is also nuanced.
A complex food system has more actors and processes that can be disrupted and more modes of failure, suggesting reduced resilience. However, increased complex also expands the adaptive capacity of the system.
Larger systems have greater degrees of freedom to find alternative pathways and products, e.g. for the supply to shift between locations, or for substitute between products. The impact on resilience is balance between the two aspects. In an imagined localised world a shock, e.g. crop failure due to extreme weather, in one region does not spill over to other regions.
The affected region will have to deal with the shock which relative to the size of the region is greater than to the global system. A global system exchanges lower probability high impact of events, with a higher probability (given wider scope) but lower impact (as disturbed more widely) events.
Shocks that disrupt trade, e.g. through transport or policy, are of concern in a globalised system. International trade disruption simultaneously creates supply shocks and reduce the scope of actions to respond to them.
The importance of politicians making decisions on international trade policy and food security has been demonstrated, for example, in 2007/8 and 2011/12 the food price spikes appeared disproportionate to the shock in supply and demand. The risk with regards to COVID-19 response has been identified by the UN, with active steps being taken to avoid state actions that would curtail trade in agricultural commodities.
An undesirable consequence of globalisation is that the poorest groups, who spend the greatest percentage of income on food, are the most impacted by shocks, regardless of location.
Covid-19 has revealed issues regarding affordability of food to vulnerable groups, e.g. leading to a rise in food banks within developed countries. These issues are largely caused because of mobility or access to incomes.
The sharing of risk that globalisation brings is of benefit to all but is regressive in nature, as those on the lowest incomes are proportionately impacted the greatest. However, rather than a move away from globalisation in food supply, efforts are need to tackle the negative outcomes and address income inequality more broadly.
The food system has so far largely coped with the shocks created by Covid-19. Where food insecurity has occurred, for example resulting in the increased use of food banks, the causes are primarily economic rather than due to food availability or increases in prices. However, there is still potential for the future impacts to be more serious. Perhaps most concerningly is the potential for international trade in agricultural commodities to be disturbed, as the system has less capacity to adapt quickly to such shocks. It is hoped that Covid-19 will not prove to be such an event, and with alert policy decision making internationally it will not. Longer term greater clarity of the costs and benefits of alternative systems, and how resilient they are, is needed.