What Coronavirus has Revealed About Our Broken Food System

Empty supermarket shelves, media accounts of people ‘panic-buying’ and hoarding: the outbreak of Covid-19 and its rapid spread across the globe led to significant disruptions to the food system. But these very visible problems which were, for a few weeks at least, all anyone could talk about (never forget the great toilet paper shortage of 2020) are hiding a much deeper and more systemic vulnerability which the crisis is exacerbating, but did not create.

Our food system—both here in the UK, and globally—is ill-equipped to handle crises. In the good times, when everything is working properly, there seems to be an embarrassment of riches: supermarket shelves overflowing with brightly coloured packets, mountains of fresh vegetables flown in from far-flung places. But lurking just below the surface, there is injustice, environmental degradation, and the spectre of food insecurity. Covid-19, like the going out of the tide, has dragged away the veil and revealed the shape of what lies beneath.

A recent study found that in the first three weeks of the lock-down, around 3% (1.5 million) of the UK’s population had had to go a full day without eating because they didn’t have enough food, while a staggering 14% (7.1 million) lived in a household where someone had had to skip meals or reduce their consumption because they either couldn’t afford or couldn’t access food. 

But this is not a new problem. A Parliamentary Select Committee report last year indicated that between 1.97 and 3 million people in the UK are undernourished, while an FAO report found that between 2015 and 2017, 2.2 million UK residents were severely food insecure. A food system which fails to adequately feed such large numbers of people is, perhaps, not a very good system (though we might, of course, question to what extent this is characteristic of broader issues of socioeconomic inequality and poverty. But I digress). Either way, it seems clear that ‘cheap food’ does not a good food system make. That is, at least, if your criterion for success is at minimum its ability to provide adequate levels of nutrition to your population.

While some primary producers have seen a huge surge in demand as a result of Covid-19—particularly producers who usually supply supermarkets and who run food box delivery schemes—others, are now struggling to make ends meet. Those whose usual markets are the food service and hospitality industries, or who sell their produce through alternative venues such as farmers markets which have been closed down, have been hit particularly hard. Even at the best of times, primary producers only receive about 5 or 6% of the final price of food sold in supermarkets, and in 2014, a full quarter of the country’s food producers were living in poverty. The margins are slim. Something needs to change.

Turning from individual food security to the national level, the Covid-19 pandemic is demonstrating how easily a system which brings food to the supermarket shelf ‘just-in-time’ for purchase can be upended in a crisis. So far, globally, the FAO asserts that there has been no significant disruption to food production: the food shortages we have been seeing on our supermarket shelves are related more to logistical difficulties. Basically, when global trade goes haywire, and half the world is on lock-down, it suddenly becomes quite difficult to get things from A to B, when A and B are separated by thousands of miles, and, quite often, an ocean. Given that, as of 2016, 50% of the food eaten in the UK is imported (30% from the EU, 20% from non-EU countries), these ‘logistical difficulties’ pose quite significant problems for the country’s food security. This situation is exacerbated by exchange rate fluctuations caused by the economic volatility associated with the Covid-19 outbreak, which as the FAO bluntly puts it, are “bad for importers.”

While supply may not be an issue yet on a global scale, there may soon be a significant problem domestically due to issues such as the anticipated labour shortages during the peak growing and harvesting season this summer. In 2018, an astonishing 99% of the UK’s seasonal agricultural workers are estimated to come each year from the EU. Brexit aside (if such a phrase can be uttered with a straight face), the entire continent is on lock-down: it seems unlikely that around 70,000 Europeans will be able to make it to the country in the next few months, leading to fears of crops being left to rot in the fields. While industry calls for Britons to apply for seasonal farm labour jobs seem to have been rather successful so far, those applying are largely people who have lost their jobs or been furloughed in other sectors due to Covid-19, and who would not usually be available to fill the large hole that may be left in a post-Brexit world by our European neighbours who used to feed us. 

There are other problems facing food production, many of which have been at least partly brought about by the loss of the food service and hospitality markets, as well as the implementation of social distancing regulations. For example, some large abattoirs have been forced to close, leaving smaller abattoirs struggling to cope with huge upswings in demand. Dairy farms are being forced to dump milk that they can’t sell, or which can’t be collected, and not only are many farmers are facing significant financial hardship as a result, but there are significant environmental implications of this impact of the outbreak. 

Most of us know that around 30% of food is wasted between the field and the landfill—and that’s in a good year. However, consumers’ purchasing behaviour in response to Covid-19 has been exacerbating that wastage. For example, in Italy, there has been an increase in demand for flour by 80%, canned meat by 60%, and canned beans by 55% since the beginning of the crisis. At the same time, the country experienced a decline in sales of perishable goods, such as fresh produce.

I don’t need to look beyond the Co-op down the road to know that’s true here, too. What became more rare and sought after than diamonds in the early weeks of the crisis? Famously, pasta. And flour. And there was precious little in the way of tinned tomatoes to be found either. And even now that everyone has calmed down a bit on the buying front, nobody seems to be buying produce. Just last night, I went to the shop to buy some supplies and was confronted with two supermarket trolleys overflowing with heavily reduced-price fruit and veg. Most of that produce, which farmers have worked hard to produce, and truck drivers have risked their health to deliver, will be thrown away when nobody buys it. At the farm level, farmers in the UK and abroad are being forced to dump milk, and turn vegetables back into the soil. At all nodes of the food system, waste is increasing, alongside its associated greenhouse gas emissions. 

Another, indirect, impact Covid-19 has had on the sustainability of food systems is to slow down coordinated action on making food systems more ecologically friendly. For example, the publication of the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy—which aims to improve the resilience, justice and sustainability of the European food system—was pushed back until April and may now be delayed until the autumn. The loss of momentum associated with these kinds of delays stymies progress on making sure our food is produced in ways which are kind to the world around us as well as to the people who produce it. 

So, what does this mean for the future of food? There are plenty of lessons to be learned from this crisis. But the key thing to point out is that none of these problems are new. For every issue outlined above (and, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface) there is clear evidence that the bigger problem long predates the outbreak of Covid-19. As such, the lessons we need to learn must go much deeper than short-term fixes.

We need to ensure that all people, at all times, can afford to buy enough food for themselves and their families to eat. And we cannot either morally or practically rely on charity to provide this service, either in the short or long term; many now argue for the existence of the right to food, which must be ensured by the government, not through the benevolence of relatively wealthy individuals—just like any other right.  

We need to make sure that the supply of food from producers to eaters is able to be maintained even in times of crisis—whether this be through shortening our food chains, increasing domestic production, or building diversity into each level of the food system and challenging its increasing monopolisation. We need to connect communities with the people who grow and produce their food. One positive intervention in this regard is the Farms to Feed Us project, which is a non-profit set-up by a group of volunteers to create a database which connects people with farmers, fishers and food producers both during the pandemic and after.

And, finally, we need to ensure that we are growing and producing food in ways that enhance, rather than harm the world around us, by doing things like building healthy soil, providing a home for biodiversity, and treating its workers (both human and non-human) fairly and kindly. 

There are many different opinions on exactly what a just and regenerative food system looks like, and this is not the place to get into them, but the fact is that the way we farm, right now, is not working for the planet, and it is not working for people. And that needs to change. Maybe the silver lining of this pandemic will be the gift of time, to let us stop for a minute and think about how to do just that.

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