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The covid19 crisis, an accelerator of innovation in food systems

The coronavirus crisis has resurrected debates on the place and development of agriculture and food in our societies. In most countries, individuals, families or communities are (re)considering basic needs: health, housing, communication… and food. But this “nourishing awareness” is not just a psychological feeling of the crisis. It results from the impacts of the pandemic on all the activities which contribute to feed a population, from agricultural production to household food practices, which constitute different “food systems”. These impacts, observed or feared, reveal the vulnerability of these systems and accelerate the innovations that could transform them.

Measures to counter the pandemic have indeed strongly impacted food systems. Restrictions on international trade have affected sectors, for example exports of wine or animal products from Europe, cash crops from Africa, cereals from countries strengthening their strategic stocks (Russia, India, etc.). Border closures have stopped the flow of tourists, the movements of breeders in Africa, the mobility of foreign agricultural workers on whom many farms depend… The containment measures have led to the closure of catering and markets, to the growth in demand for food retail or supermarkets, to the obligation to consume or cook at home … In addition, unemployment, inflation in several countries in the South and the drop of family income brought on by the crisis have increased food insecurity and changed the demand of households, whose value of food purchases has increased in many countries, especially on basic products.

These effects quickly prompted adjustments in food systems. The possibilities of redeploying or storing several productions, postponing the slaughter of animals, selling on local circuits or resorting to local labor have enabled farmers to cope with the crisis. In supply chains and shops, the integration of “barrier gestures”, the adaptation of packaging, the strengthening of home deliveries and the proliferation of information and promotion have made it possible to respond to changes in food demand. The mobilization of self-help networks, associations, municipal social action structures (CCAS in France) have allowed the distribution of food aid. At the level of the “containment units”, purchasing practices, household chores and eating behavior have been reorganised. These adjustments show a strong resilience, in the short term, of domestic food systems, local food chains (excluding traditional or collective catering) and mass distribution, or even some international operators. Conversely, they testify to the difficulties of more specialized food systems, in particular on quality products and fresh products, providing catering or export (excluding cereals).

These adjustments have also oppend the way for innovations in all food systems: new sanitary devices in companies; farmer drives organized in village or supermarket squares; creation of food ordering platforms, purchasing groups on WhatsApp or Wechat; new “contactless home delivery” systems; interactive maps of the food supply at the scale of a local community; new “Home-Cooked Meals” recipes on Youtube… These innovations can be identified in most countries with many common characteristics:

– they largely integrate the use of digital technology, accelerating the digitalization of food systems, including in countries of the South and in Asia where the use of smartphones is very present;
– they correspond to “bottom up” processes, driven by companies in the food chains or by consumers themselves (user innovations);
– they often express a collective dimension on a local scale, which can initiate a process of “territorialization” of activities linked to food;
– they are also exercised from digital operators and home distribution platforms which, on the contrary, tend to reinforce the individualization of food exchanges;
– they reveal social and territorial disparities (existence of “food deserts”), inviting also to innovate in regional planning according to food issues (“territorial innovations”) ;
– Finally, they call for a renewal of public action to support, on different scales, the strengthening of food security and autonomy, from the management of world food trade and stocks, to the support for innovations at local scale.

These innovations then question the transition of food systems “after the crisis”. The challenge is to strengthen their resilience by integrating innovations linked to digital technology and the territorialization of activities, but also demands in terms of food justice and fair trade, ecosystem management and climate change. The transformative nature of the crisis then remains in question. Will the innovations brought to light by the crisis only translate into a return to the previous development model or will they contribute to change the food systems and integrate the other social and ecological challenges?

Jean-Marc Touzard

INRAE, UMR Innovation 0951

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