This report presents the findings of a study on the impacts of COVID-19 on the UK’s food and nutrition security and what lessons can be learned for the future in respect of transformation of the food system to be resilient and sustainable. The food system underpins society and economies and is being impacted by COVID-19 as well as becoming increasingly at risk from the consequences of threat multipliers such as climate change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation. Of increasing concern are the risks of multiple coinciding events that will stress test the food system beyond anything recently experienced. Such multiple events could be climate extremes and economic downturns, both having differentiated impacts on production, availability and food prices. These potentially compounding risks and associated requirements for complex synergistic solutions to meet multiple objectives for the food system need to be set in context with a growing demand from a more numerous and affluent global population and finite production resources. The food system also accounts for approximately 34% of global greenhouse gas emissions, hence there is need for immediate mitigation.

A key question is therefore how we define food system resilience and whether it will be resilient to emerging pressures. To inform discussion on this, we present an overview of the COVID-19 pandemic impacts and identify what lessons can be learned in respect of informing food system transformation to achieve multiple objectives of improved diet and human health, economic prosperity and environmental sustainability in order for the food system to become resilient.

The research considered how the pandemic affected the strengths and weaknesses of the food system and how this relates to its resilience to plausible future challenges. The coinciding of the pandemic and Brexit made it difficult to disentangle specific effects of each event on the food system, which illustrates the potential for compounding multiple risks to food and nutrition security. We provide some recommendations on what needs to be done to enable a sustainable and resilient system that is good for human and environmental health.

The findings are presented taking an overview perspective of the pandemic and in the context of the need to transform the food system to align with changes in trade, land use and management and supply chain processes to meet multiple objectives including: achieving net zero emissions; improving human health through better diets; and promoting a resilient, sustainable healthy environment better able to provide ecosystem services.

The key message from this research, in light of lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, is the need for preparation and contingency planning with national food system strategies and internationally agreed measures to protect food and nutrition security. Fundamentally, prevention, in the form of reducing climate risks through deep and rapid mitigation and well-resourced support for adaptation in the food system, integrated with the reversal of environmental damage through sustainable production methods and ecosystem restoration will help progress towards protecting food and nutrition security against future risks.

Cite as

Rivington, M., King, R., Duckett, D., Iannetta, P., Benton, T., Burgess, P., Hawes, C., Wellesley, L., Polhill, J., Aitkenhead, M., Lozada-Ellison, L., Begg, G., Williams, A., Newton, A., Lorenzo-Arribas, A., Neilson, R., Watts, C., Harris, J., Loades, K., Stewart, D., Wardell-Johnson, D., Gandossi, G., Udugbezi, E., Hannam, J., Sandars, D. & Keay, K. 2021, UK Food and Nutrition Security During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic: Project Report and Recommendations, James Hutton Institute. Available at: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.6078446

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Last updated: 18 October 2023
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