The COVID-19 pandemic dominates our lives and work. That is also the case for the work on the Food, Nutrition and Health Research Infrastructure. One of the interesting discussions in the project team in the hub that works with the support of the nodes on the final version of the ESFRI proposal, concerns the question if COVID-19 increases the need for the FNH-RI.

I think it does. The first thing that strikes me about the COVID-19 pandemic is that it is a health crisis which has close links to the food system and which exposes the inherent weaknesses in it. It is a zoonosis which seems to have emerged as a result of the unprofessional and perhaps even illegal trade in exotic wild animals in Wuhan. But it is still a zoonosis, and although as far as the experts are concerned it has little to do with the way we keep cattle, that is not how many members of the public see it:  in the Netherlands there is a widespread belief that it is essentially no different from Q fever and that ‘Mother Nature is striking back’. Recent COVID-19 cases in mink production and problems with containment in slaughterhouses strengthen fears. Rightly or wrongly, in management and politics, ‘feelings are facts’.

A second striking phenomenon is that many coronavirus patients in intensive care units are men with obesity and lifestyle-related disorders. Nutrition and lifestyle clearly play a role. Up to now, governments have been reluctant to get involved in helping people attain a healthy lifestyle, but the realisation is now growing that preventive health care needs to be given more prominence alongside or within the study of medicine. A third issue is air quality. Not only are people currently experiencing what it is like to live in a cleaner environment which seems to be saving large numbers of lives, but there are also indications that air pollution impacts on the number of victims, whether through transmission or because of poorer health conditions of people.

The fact that these phenomena impact on the consumer/general public and our living environment ties in seamlessly with a scientific analysis of the food system and the need for a transition to a more sustainable and healthy system that has been ongoing for some years: the negative effects are at the beginning and end of the supply chain – the weakest links – and policymakers are reluctant to intervene.

My expectation and hope is that we will learn from the pandemic and organise the post-COVID-19 society in such a way that the food and health systems make our society a better place. That asks for government interventions to promote a sustainable and healthy way of living. In science it asks for linking the topics of food and health, first of all in our data management.

The pandemic also speeds up the digital society: several countries have introduced a corona apps, and citizens moved to substitute digital payments for cash. Online sales blossom. The demand for healthy food increases. This shows that citizens can change their behaviour more strongly than some governments tend to think – and that data on this behaviour is available in a digital format somewhere. We just have to combine it.

The pandemic is one big social experiment in which governments and citizens take decisions that were unthinkable in the past. The FNH-RI is more needed than ever to underpin decision making in this area of sustainable and healthy food.

Krijn Poppe / Wageningen Economic Research