It is obvious that food is essential in sustaining life, but its significance is more profound than simply this. For the vast majority of people, food is their main connection to nature, the key to their health and the health of the planet. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic swept the globe, it was clear that we need to rethink our entire approach to our food systems given that they inflict the single greatest damage of any human activity on nature. Food is the single biggest source of CO2 emissions, by far the biggest user of freshwater, and by far the biggest cause of species extinction and habitat loss.
Tackling such issues is complicated by the fact that food has immense social and cultural significance. Food connects us – to each other, to our culture, and ultimately to nature. We depend on sufficient nutritious and healthy food to survive and live healthy lives, but much more than this, it gives us pleasure, stirs memories and feeds emotions. It creates and maintains strong social, cultural and economic bonds and cohesion.
Some of the biggest issues we face locally as well as globally – including climate change and public health – stem from what we eat and how we eat. Thus, as the distance, both geographical and cognitive, between farm and fork has increased over the past decades, most people are becoming ever more detached from the food they eat, often not knowing nor even caring where it comes from nor how it arrives on their plate.
It was already clear before Covid-19 that policies and strategies are needed to transform towards more sustainable food systems within increasingly local loop food economies. This implies shorter value chains and less waste enabled by local circular systems consisting both of biological regeneration and of technical and material restoration functioning in tandem.
Now during and in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, food production, processing and distribution systems have been thrown into disarray. As consumers, most people are also being required to change both their behaviour and attitudes to food: how they plan, obtain and purchase food as well as how they prepare and eat food. Many are also reconsidering their diets and the ingredients they use. There seems currently to be much turmoil as well as both complementary and contradictory trends. These are perhaps related to differences in local and national regulations but possibly just as much, if not more, to existing household, community and social habits as well as economic systems and cultures.
The questionnaire developed as the first stage of this research agenda aims to lay the basis for a fuller examination of these issues. It collects initial information on the ways ordinary people at household level have changed how they obtain, prepare and eat their food. It also maps a range of other changes in food behaviour and attitudes, respondents’ situation, people's perception of the risks associated with Covid-19, as well as food poverty and access to food.
Limited demographic and location information is collected from respondents that is fully compliant with the EU’s GDPR and ethical frameworks, and also enables ongoing further research that can draw directly on Eurostat’s NUT 3 socio-economic and environmental data. This enables scientifically sound comparisons and recommendations to be made between participant countries and regions, as well as between different population cohorts. It also ensures overall representativeness and relevance of the data collected and subsequent findings.
The research objectives are to:
Map and analyse how individuals, households, communities, localities and countries, primarily across Europe but also globally, are changing their behaviour and attitudes to food during the spread of Covid-19 and beyond, and how this might be associated with their perceptions of the risks the pandemic brings.
Show how this is currently impacting, as well as being influenced by, the rest of the food value chain (specifically food production, processing and distribution) and how it is responding to local and national regulations and market dynamics, as well as influencing these.
Investigate the extent to which we can we expect these changes to continue, adapt and/or disappear over the medium- to longer-term and what are the consequential impacts on society, the economy and the environment.
Establish a strong scientific evidence base that provides lessons and advice to public authorities, market players, civil society and other relevant stakeholders, as well as to the research community.
In order to fully address the above objectives, the questionnaire itself provides the basis for further ongoing research beyond the immediate crisis. This will focus on collaboration with stakeholders along the whole food value chain, including local and national policy makers, and will involve interviews, focus groups, desk research and further targeted surveys.