What is food system resilience?

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Food system resilience is the system’s capacity to deliver desired outcomes when exposed to stresses and shocks.

Enhancing resilience of a food system can be achieved in three ways:

Robustness

The ability of the food system to resist disruptions to current outcomes by preventing shocks and stress impacting food system activities. Examples include food system actors adopting more heat-tolerant crops and more diverse farming systems, taking actions to ensure there is sufficient natural habitat to support pollinators, or a food processor or retailer having multiple supply chains.

Recovery

The ability of the food system to return to prior outcomes following disruption (bounce back). Examples include system actors taking out insurance to re-instate crops or physical infrastructure, or using smart technologies to re-stock grocery supply and delivery following a temporary shortage.

Re-orientation

The ability of food system to deliver acceptable alternative outcomes before or following disruption (bounce forward). Examples include accepting diets based on a wider range of agricultural products thereby spreading risk, or incentivising food supply chains to transform outcomes of health, environment and enterprise.

Aiming for any of these three ways requires re-organisation, i.e. making changes in how the system operates. This is termed ‘adaptation’; food system actors adapt their activities (the ‘what we do’: farming, processing retailing, etc) to maintain, or to be able to return to, or to transform the outcomes (the ‘what we get’: food supply, livelihoods, ecosystem services, etc).

‘Adaptation’ therefore refers to changing the food system activities. ‘Transformation’ refers to changing the food system outcomes. Activities do not spontaneously change but do so in response to a change in a driver. This could be, for instance, a new regulation, a period of extreme weather or a new set of trading arrangements. This change in driver(s) will lead to adapting from method 1 to method 2 in response to the new set of conditions. Similarly, outcomes do not spontaneously transform but as a result of adapting activities. Hence, aiming for transformed food system outcomes requires adapting food system activities which will be in response to changed food system drivers.

Why does food system resilience matter?

Our diets are highly varied and we expect a wide range of foodstuffs all year round. Environmental, biological, economic, social and geopolitical shocks and stresses already act as disrupting drivers to make the UK food system vulnerable to disruption. As the UK imports around half of its food, changes in trade arrangements due to EU-exit coupled with the shock (and now stress) of Covid-19 are further, major disrupting drivers. We need to enhance the resilience of our food system. The challenge is to determine how best to do this.

Banner photo credit: Chantal Garnier | Unsplash