Reflections on our Global Food System in the Covid-19 Era

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One of the many takeaways from the global Covid-19 pandemic will be how our current food system has failed us. The jarring images of empty grocery store shelves and videos of fistfights in the aisles will take their spot in the history books. Yet hopefully, we will remember this as the moment things changed for the better. As the pandemic inches along, with most of us still under shelter-in-place recommendations from our government leaders, it is incredibly important to take this time to reflect and start looking for ways to improve. We can help protect the planet through how we eat, and this is a stark reminder that we need to start doing so.

Business as usual

Our global food system has been problematic for a long time now. Unfortunately, it has taken a crisis of this scale to see it clearly. According to this article by the New York Times, at the same time grocery stores shelves are emptying, there is excess food at farms across the United States that is going to waste. This is clearly a broken system.

First, we will take a critical eye to the way our current food system is failing us. Then we will evaluate how the restaurant industries, agricultural industries, and the greater food industries around the world are responding to the COVID-19 crisis. Finally, we will discuss alternative systems that could better serve our communities into the future.

Food Systems Respond to Covid-19

COVID-19 exposes a broken food system

From the New York Times, “After weeks of concern about shortages in grocery stores and mad scrambles to find the last box of pasta or toilet paper roll, many of the nation’s largest farms are struggling with another ghastly effect of the pandemic. They are being forced to destroy tens of millions of pounds of fresh food that they can no longer sell.” In the face of COVID-19, our current global food system is failing us. Unfortunately, the pandemic is only the last straw in a series of issues facing our current food industry.

Our modern agricultural systems have been designed around the main tenets of efficiency, output, and profit. Farms across the globe have turned into machines that are largely monocultural — meaning only one type of crop is grown — and ridden with pesticides. These practices deplete the soil, take habitat and resources from native plants and animals, and leave the farm susceptible to environmental wreckage. Additionally, farmworkers around the world are being exploited by working incredibly long hours for very little pay for the sake of efficiency for major biotech agricultural corporations (i.e. Monsanto, DuPont, etc.).

The way the current agricultural system is running is unsustainable, unhealthy, and exploitive. This is not the fault of farm owners, farm workers, or consumers. This is the fault of multi-billion dollar agribusinesses. For the sake of profit we have sacrificed biodiversity, quality, and security. By growing monocultures, using pesticides and GMOs, harvesting early and ripening artificially, and shipping produce thousands of miles before getting to our plates, we have created a global food system that is thoroughly inequitable and unsustainable – as proven by the current pandemic.

Food systems during Covid-19

How food systems are responding to COVID-19

Our food systems have been affected greatly by the onset of the global coronavirus pandemic. Namely, the shelter-in-place orders around the world have created a very rapid and dramatic shift in the ways people are accessing food. In much of the developed world, restaurants were one of the top ways people were buying food. In fact, in the U.S. 45% of diners go out to eat multiple times a week. Schools are also a huge sector of the U.S. food system, nearly “29.8 million students each day” are served lunch at their school. With the forced closure of many restaurants, schools, and hotels across the world, there is an entire (very significant) branch of the global food industry that is being cut out.

Instead, as the restrictions continue, people are cooking for themselves and shopping in grocery stores. This is a dramatic shift that, in other circumstances, would be a positive one. When we cook at home we eat healthier, and are more connected to our food. But because of the situation we are under, this shift has led to both surplus and shortage. Suppliers are struggling with the lack of demand from restaurants, school cafeterias, and hotels, businesses that otherwise would have ordered 50-pound bags of onions or a hundred gallons of milk.

Where is the surplus food going?

This shift, unfortunately, has affected smaller scale farms more significantly. The higher-value, more specialized crops small farms typically grow generally require more labor, which can put workers at risk. Many farms also rely on workers from outside the country and with restrictions on travel, this is both dangerous and unlawful. According to this article by Scientific American, “[these goods] are also often sold to restaurants and farmers markets, many of which are now widely closed or have reduced service across the country, rather than directly to the grocery stores that are still operating.”

The surplus is then lost — plowed back into fields, buried and turned into compost, or unceremoniously dumped. The amount of waste in our food system under the COVID-19 pandemic is staggering. This is also coinciding with more people struggling to find and afford food. The effect of the pandemic on the economy has led to layoffs, reduced hours, or furloughs, meaning people are stuck without work and pay during these uncertain times. Therefore, there is greater demand on social security programs like food banks.

These are scary times and as put by this article from the New York Times, “The widespread destruction of fresh food — at a time when many Americans are hurting financially and millions are suddenly out of work — is an especially dystopian turn of events, even by the standards of a global pandemic. It reflects the profound economic uncertainty wrought by the virus and how difficult it has been for huge sectors of the economy, like agriculture, to adjust to such a sudden change in how they must operate.”

Organic Farm Tour in Bahia Ballena, Costa Rica

Where do we go from here?

We can see where pieces of this global food system are failing. We have removed ourselves so thoroughly from our food that we can barely even recognize it anymore. Our agricultural systems more closely resemble factories than abundant natural areas and even with all of this “efficiency” millions of people are still struggling with food security. So, let’s take these lessons and learn from them.

Taking a birds-eye-view, what we need are resilient food systems. We need a diverse and abundant way of growing and distributing food that can cope with shocks to the system, whether they be super-storms, economic failures, travel restrictions, or anything else coming our way. In the face of climate change, the coronavirus pandemic is a warning and resilience is about tackling and overcoming these types of challenges without being completely overwhelmed by them.

Learning to Eat Better in Covid-19

How do we build resilient food systems?

We can learn a great deal by watching the natural systems around us. The cyclical nature of all the players in the environment — from the microorganisms in soil, to the birds of prey circling above — all weave an important story. In our food systems each piece matters and plays a role in the success of the whole system. Everything from the health of the soil and the conditions of the workers, to the way we transport food and the way we shop for it, matters. This is the concept of regenerative agriculture, using agriculture not only as a method to grow food but as a way to replenish the natural systems we are a part of. Regenerative agriculture ingrates livestock, uses cover crops and practices no-till farming, and utilizes crop diversity. There are farms all over the world that are practicing these methods of growing food and as the movement continues to grow we will hopefully see the resilience of a system that mimics and supports the natural cycles of our environment.

Food sovereignty

Food sovereignty is another concept that should play a greater role in our food and agricultural industries. By definition, “Food Sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” People have a right to access food that is healthy, culturally appropriate, affordable, and sustainable. If and when we transition our food systems this concept should be at the forefront of our efforts.

Cooking at home during Covid-19

The beginnings of change

This is the large scale take-away from the COVID-19 pandemic: a fundamental shift in how we think about and grow our food. On a more immediate response, we can work to improve and expand our local food systems. As travel restrictions and fear of exposure has meant that imports and exports around the world have slowly come to a halt, we are seeing that this globalized system is far from perfect. By transitioning to diets that are more local to where we live we can find more security in our access to fresh, healthy food.

And finally, we can all benefit from learning a little bit more about how food is grown. We have distanced ourselves so thoroughly from this process that many people around the world have never had any experience in growing food at a farm, in a backyard garden, or even a windowsill planter. Developing a general knowledge on the basics of growing food could be hugely beneficial to the way we understand our food systems. It can reconnect us to the process that sustains our health and wellbeing. Growing food is an ordinary, everyday miracle and we are seeing that clearly now more than ever. It’s high time we understand the process a little better.

Additional resources for further reading and watching…

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Written by Sheridan Plummer

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About the author

Sheridan Plummer