Aoife Behan: Seismic behaviour shift proves we can eat our way to greener recovery

As we start to emerge from lockdown, talk is shifting from crisis management to recovery. But should “back to business as usual” be our goal? Can we instead eat our way to a “green recovery”?

There has been growing interest in vegetable box schemes
There has been growing interest in vegetable box schemes

The disruption caused by Covid-19 tested the resilience of our food supply chains and exposed weaknesses. Remember those empty supermarket shelves in the early stages of the crisis? Three months in, supermarkets have for the most part, remained stocked. But a second spike in transmission rates, a protracted recession, or even a depression could lead to price rises and food shortages.

The pandemic has shown us how vulnerable the long and complex food chains that we so heavily rely upon are to shocks – a sudden change in shopping habits, travel restrictions, staff absences and access to seasonal labour all played a part. The result? Food stuck in fields, while those shelves sat empty.

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Shorter, more local supply chains have been impacted too. Closures of farmers’ markets, restaurants and cafés have meant usual routes to market have been blocked. All of this is compounded by the challenges posed by rural connectivity and the technology capabilities of small and medium-sized businesses to cope with very welcome surges in demand. As any farmer will tell you, there was plenty of food, but often no way to get it from field to fork.

But there are reasons to be hopeful. We are all thinking more about our food and where it comes from. A recent UK-wide study found that more than a third of us are cooking more from scratch and are throwing away less food. Many of us have tried a veg box scheme or ordered food from a local farm for the very first time (according to the RSA). Crucially, the same study showed that only 9 per cent of us want to return to a pre-Covid-19 way of living.

The government, too, has taken extraordinary steps to secure the production and distribution of food through a range of initiatives. Demonstrating that where there is political will, there is a way. Change is possible.

As talk of recovery grows, so too does talk of food security. If we are to secure the green recovery that many desire, we need to be very clear about what food security means.

Food security is not about more food – it is about producing and eating better food. There is a risk that the crisis is used to roll back on actions taken towards more environmentally friendly food production. Food security and the environment must not be set against each other. The long-term resilience of our food production relies on a healthy and resilient environment. Food production that doesn’t safeguard the natural world is not secure.

Neither is food security about closing our borders and living on tatties and turnips day in day out. We’re part of a global system and we have traded food for hundreds of years. But we do need to become more self-sufficient in what we eat and produce – more diverse diets, more diverse crops, a better food future for us all. It is important that what we do import meets the highest standards. We must not offshore the environmental and social costs of producing food to poor standards.

What we need is fresh, nourishing food, that is produced in a way that preserves and regenerates nature. It is food that is accessible to all, not just the affluent middle classes. It is food that offers a decent living to those that produce it and it is food that benefits local economies. We need to support Scottish farmers to supply Scottish customers more directly, including through supermarkets. This requires both individual and collective action through government policy.

The crisis has shown us that people would like to be able to buy sustainable, local food more easily, and farmers would like more control of their produce and the price they get for it. We need to build on this massive shift in behaviour to create a more resilient food system. Scotland’s food industry can be at the heart of a green recovery. A recovery that nourishes our health, protects our environment and helps local communities to thrive. Scotland can be a good food nation.

Aoife Behan is Director of Soil Association Scotland

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