The Future of Agri-Food Systems Through a Pandemic Lens

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Just under a year ago, in mid-December 2019, a group of 20-some of us gathered at the lovely Cornell Tech campus in New York City to kick off the expert panel on innovations to build sustainable, equitable and inclusive food value chains. Nature Sustainability had invited the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability to convene its 2020 expert panel. We intentionally brought together experts from around the world who did not previously know each other, who represented vastly different organizations, from venture capital and multinational food companies to environmental conservation and social justice non-profits, from multilateral development banks and philanthropists to academic researchers and government scientists. Our charge was to take stock of the scientific evidence and explore whether and how current and prospective innovations might effectively shift the trajectory of the world’s agri-food systems (AFS) away from the unsustainable path we have travelled in recent decades, one marked by growing climate, biodiversity loss, and obesity crises. If so, how might we navigate towards more healthy, equitable, resilient and sustainable AFS? As the group wrestled with the existential threats implied by these complex, heavy issues, the sunny views from Roosevelt Island and the city’s holiday atmosphere set a hopeful backdrop, if one took time to notice.

That juxtaposition of the obviously heavy and the subtly hopeful typified the expert panel’s year-long journey. A few short months into our work, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. The pandemic obviously compelled our panel to rethink how we would collaborate to complete our work when we could no longer gather in person and some among us were derailed by more serious, urgent matters. It also forced us to rethink how we collectively understood AFS. After all, COVID-19 likely originated through human-wildlife contact in a wet food market in China, has often spread quickly through hotspots in meatpacking plants, restaurants, bars, and social gatherings for meals and celebrations, and has caused massive economic dislocation, perhaps especially among workers and small business owners in the food service industry.

 The COVID-19 pandemic offers a warning shot across the AFS bow. We must anticipate and prepare for more frequent and severe crises, ones that cascade from a disease outbreak or catastrophic natural disaster or war into economic dislocation or political unrest. The pandemic is a trial run not just for inevitable, future infectious disease outbreaks, but also for hard-to-reverse climate change and biodiversity loss, natural processes that threaten even larger-scale and longer-lasting implications for humanity and against which no vaccine can be developed.

But the pandemic also made clear to us the extraordinary capacity of modern science to quickly solve problems, if we invest and believe in research. Vast financial resources can evidently be mobilized to support a crucial cause quickly when sufficient will exists. And where individuals can be induced to cooperate with and support one another, grave dangers can be averted quickly. I wouldn’t have predicted in December that crisis would play a central role in our learning process, not just disrupting our workplan but also bringing us weary hope.

No one on the panel could have undertaken all the necessary assessments and successfully delivered on the panel’s promise, especially with the complications posed by the pandemic. This experience underscored that positive change almost always comes mainly through the cooperative actions of people and the organizations they comprise. Heavy issues – like redirecting AFS away from looming disaster – are fundamentally precompetitive issues around which quite different people with different values and objectives can band together. Companies and investors that are sometimes competitors with one another can – indeed must – come together with skeptical activists and scientists to assess evidence, debate options, and agree on fundamental principles. We panelists had to learn each other’s language and respect each other’s perspective to find common ground. And that is feasible, even when done mainly on Zoom rather than over a nice meal looking out over the Hudson River!

Chris Barrett

Stephen B. & Janice G. Ashley Professor of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University