In farming and food systems, as in every other avenue of public life, context is everything, as I said during a discussion on Al Jazeera’s ‘Inside Story’, this past Thursday.

On the programme, which asked how coronavirus is threatening food security, I pointed out that all the stories making international headlines in relation to the impact of the pandemic on food – milk being poured down the drain, plane loads of eastern European vegetable pickers licensed to travel to the UK to harvest salad crops, the hoarding, the scarcities – are reflective of the food system that exists, namely intensive, industrialised, globalised, damaging to the environment and public health and, above all, insecure and lacking resilience.

So, although the current food system seems so apparently successful, even to the extent that we have ‘coped magnificently’ with maintaining supplies of key staple foods to the consuming public during the COVID-19 emergency, we need to realise that this is actually a dangerous delusion.

In truth, this model of a highly intensive centralised production, packing and distribution system, for most of the foods that are sold in supermarkets, will continue to have devastating negative consequences on the planet and its people.

It is a system that has been progressively developed over the last few decades, driven mainly by its simplicity and accompanying economies of scale. However, this isn’t the full picture, since the process results in the loss of thousands of jobs, a huge negative impact on local economies, damage to climate change, biodiversity, public health and, as we can now see, food insecurity in the event of any sudden external shocks.

None of these so-called external costs are attributed to the retailers, which is why there continues to be a good business case for centralisation of supply chains – it makes financial sense! I heard how one retailer even described the last few weeks as being like having Christmas three times over!

The other participant in my Al Jazeera discussion was Jane Howard from the World Food Program, who described the perfectly sensible measures they are taking to ensure that no-one goes hungry, all which is, of course, excellent – but only in the current context, I argued, and not the one we need to move to when all this is over.

During the second half of the interview, I argued that what we need is systems of food production which prove to be resilient, secure and sustainable during future shocks. I am certain that the key characteristics of those systems will be similar to, and as resilient in a future pandemic, as they were when the U-boats were sinking the North Atlantic convoys during the Second World War. In other words, these are principles that we need to create in the new food system infrastructure after the COVID-19 outbreak has ended.

Achieving this will mean reversing the centralisation that has occurred during my farming lifetime. It will be a painful and protracted process, rather like reversing a supertanker which has enormous forward momentum. The biggest barrier to this process taking place will be economic – until the polluter pays and the hidden environmental and social costs are internalised, it will be difficult to make economic sense out of adopting this approach, which means that it will have to be citizen-led, at least in the early stages.

The model which is needed to replace it involves regional and even local supply chains being developed on a large scale – in other words cellular systems somewhat analogous to the relocalisation that is beginning to take place in electricity distribution.

So great is the scale needed, that it will be analogous to a war effort, or to use another metaphor (at least in the early stages), the creation of a new map without any existing landscape features to build on. The key objectives of the initiative will be to restore resilience, confidence and food security to a food system which is currently profitable for retailers, but fails to serve the public interest in almost every other respect.

In calling for this transformation, I would in no way rule out large food companies and retailers playing a role. I’d go further and say that those that don’t innovate and adapt to the new needs and demands that will reshape our future food systems, may not survive. Moreover, it will be incredibly challenging for them to do so, since the economies of scale which have shaped the present food systems and the absence of a polluter pays principle make it incredibly difficult for the innovations that are needed, to work financially.

However, just because these changes lie at the very limits of financial and technical capacity right now, doesn’t mean to say we shouldn’t be striving for them – otherwise we may not have a planet which is fit to inhabit.

In addition to the absence of the application of the polluter pays principle, the economic distortion of our present food system is another key barrier to achieving this transition. The public do not currently understand that the present, apparently ‘cheap’ food pricing system is dishonest. To counter this, there will be a need for a major education process to explain to the public why the existing model is not fit for purpose. Key elements of this communications initiative will need to include a description of how centralised and industrialised food production systems compromise the nutritional integrity of the food that is supplied, as well as explaining the other hidden environmental and social costs.

A critical question which arises from all this, is the degree to which all the relocalised innovation springing up all over the world – such as online businesses enabling sustainable and locally produced food to find buyers without having to go through the existing food chain – will survive beyond the end of the pandemic?

Sceptics might say that change is highly unlikely because the supermarket-based food buying systems are so convenient, comfortable and apparently cheap, most people will revert to their old ways as soon as things get back to relative normality.

So, will the apparition at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel actually represent an oncoming train that heralds the re-establishment of the globalised industrial model? Or might it be the beginnings of a renaissance of food systems which truly serve the public interest?

I believe it will actually be the latter.

We shall see!

Photograph: CIFOR

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