One of the early visible impacts of Covid-19 experienced directly in the UK was the overnight clearing of basic food provisions from our supermarket shelves. Whilst this is an atypical scenario, it does highlight the issues of food security and food sustainability.
There are several emerging themes stemming from this, occurring on a multitude of scales and including:
The rise of the home-grower
Increased interest in home-grown produce and uptake of allotments during the pandemic may go a small way toward buffering future food shortages at a domestic scale. Engaging with outdoor space increases awareness of the environment and when the focus is on growing food, of soil resources in particular. Growing food in low intensity domestic systems represents a local micro-supply that is likely to be free of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. However, it is important that peat-free composts are used, whether store-bought or home-made.
The misuse or over-use of chemicals
As a basic premise, for a system to be sustainable, it ought to rely on as few external inputs as is possible. Studies in France have already shown that reducing pesticide use does not have to result in a reduction in productivity or profitability. Field trials are currently being undertaken in the UK exploring the potential of wildflower strips traversing fields within crops, rather than being confined to field margins, to further present opportunities for reducing the reliance on conventional pesticides.
Reduced or zero-tillage
Alongside reducing the chemical inputs to land, reducing physical inputs can also improve the sustainability of food production systems by reducing soil erosion. The process of tillage largely breaks up whatever soil structure was established in the preceding months and years. There are many environmental (and other) benefits of conservation tillage and zero tillage practices, including the maintenance of complete soil aggregates, which are less susceptible to erosion.
There is much action that can be implemented by food producers, from garden-scale up to commercial production, but it is imperative that the other end of the process is also addressed. Food wastage in the UK amounts to an estimated 6.6 million tonnes per year (WRAP estimate, 2018). No matter how sustainable food production becomes, the whole system cannot be considered sustainable if the end destination is landfill.