Coronavirus Has Shown that Our Food System Is Broken. Now Is the Time to Make It More Resilient

Emma Burnett and Luke Owen July 3, 2020

Most peo­ple rely on super­mar­kets, and these mega­s­tores dom­i­nate our food econ­o­my. They are part of a sys­tem that depends on large-scale agri­cul­ture and pro­duc­tion, smooth-flow­ing inter­na­tion­al food trade and fast turn­around times.

But what hap­pens when sys­tem vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties are exposed and they break down? What catch­es our fall?

We need a resilient food sys­tem. This means going beyond the eco­log­i­cal idea of resilience as mere­ly sur­vival dur­ing times of stress, and instead proac­tive­ly build­ing a food sys­tem that can both respond quick­ly to chang­ing cir­cum­stances and act as a safe­ty net.

What we’ve seen dur­ing the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic is exact­ly what you’d expect from a vast­ly under­pre­pared pop­u­la­tion: pan­ic buy­ing, spread of mis­in­for­ma­tion, and pass­ing blame. The cas­cade of pan­ic has high­light­ed major eco­nom­ic, social, and polit­i­cal flaws.

But along­side this, we have seen a surge in self-organ­ised respons­es which can help build resilience. Think of peo­ple pro­duc­ing home­made NHS scrubs, for example.

Super­mar­kets, and much of the sup­port­ing infra­struc­ture, have in many ways stepped up dur­ing the cri­sis. They ramped up online shop­ping and deliv­ery capac­i­ty, pri­ori­tised those being shield­ed, pro­vid­ed free meals and pri­or­i­ty shop­ping access to NHS work­ers, and donat­ed to food banks. How­ev­er, rapid changes and cri­sis-dri­ven hoard­ing led to emp­ty shelves (a shock for those used to on demand”) and unavail­able online deliv­ery slots.

Because of this, many peo­ple turned to alter­na­tives. Demand for veg box­es, milk, and dry goods deliv­er­ies spiked, as did requests to join com­mu­ni­ty sup­port­ed agri­cul­ture and local farm schemes. Huge num­bers of com­mu­ni­ty-based food hubs, food banks, small farms, and even inde­pen­dent gar­den­ers respond­ed. When super­mar­kets ran out of stock or deliv­ery slots, localised ini­tia­tives expand­ed to meet demand, or found new sources of goods and pro­duce.

Beyond super­mar­kets

Diver­si­ty in the food sys­tem is para­mount. This goes beyond the num­ber of options in a shop. We need to look at how food is pro­duced, processed, trans­port­ed, and made avail­able, along with impacts and knock-on effects.

Take the mass retail mod­el that pro­vides food to most peo­ple across the glob­al north. The sort of indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture it relies on is ide­al for pro­duc­ing mass­es of uni­form food, but not for plan­e­tary or human health and well­be­ing. Indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture thrives on mono­cul­ture, where whole fields and farms are plant­ed with a sin­gle crop, but so do pests and diseases.

By remov­ing bio­di­ver­si­ty we have made it eas­i­er to sow and har­vest, pre­dict and con­trol. But gen­er­a­tions of selec­tive breed­ing means increas­ing­ly homo­ge­neous crops and live­stock, which lack the genet­ic diver­si­ty to adapt to evo­lu­tion­ary pres­sures like diseases.

Large-scale inten­sive agri­cul­ture ampli­fies this risk. In mono­cul­tures, there are no phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers or buffers to hin­der selec­tive sweeps in sus­cep­ti­ble pop­u­la­tions. When some­thing vir­u­lent crops up, it can spread like wild­fire.

We have seen this before. Repeat­ed pota­to famines in Ire­land, due to blight (and the impact of British colo­nial rule), killed mil­lions. In the 1950s, the most pop­u­lar banana vari­ety was dri­ven to near extinc­tion by a sin­gle fun­gus.

Out­breaks of Nipah virus in sev­er­al Asian coun­tries led to hun­dreds of deaths between 1998 and 2018. In 2019, African Swine Fever killed hun­dreds of mil­lions of pigs in Chi­na. Covid-19 joins a long list of blights that we have unin­ten­tion­al­ly encour­aged.

A safe­ty net

We live in a house of cards. Our sup­port sys­tems are unsta­ble, and con­stant­ly being erod­ed – one knock could see them all tum­ble down. This is why agroe­col­o­gists argue that food sys­tems need to encour­age diver­si­ty: of crops, of busi­ness mod­els, of peo­ple. Let’s look beyond the super­mar­kets and indus­tri­al farms to sys­tems that have a track record of being high­ly adapt­able, even with­out sup­port­ive policies.

Com­mu­ni­ty groups and small enter­pris­es have stepped up dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, util­is­ing their net­works to look after the vul­ner­a­ble, and gen­er­al­ly strength­en­ing the fab­ric of social safe­ty nets. This has hap­pened despite years of cuts.

Organ­i­sa­tions and ini­tia­tives, are going beyond their orig­i­nal pur­pos­es to deliv­er ser­vices and care, includ­ing food. Com­mu­ni­ty sup­port­ed agri­cul­ture schemes, food banks, and food hubs can do this because they are already net­worked local­ly and can rely on emer­gency helpers. Their adapt­abil­i­ty means they are fleet-foot­ed, and capa­ble of pick­ing up the slack of an inflex­i­ble, indus­tri­alised food system.

This is not to say that super­mar­kets should not be applaud­ed for their recent actions. But they are inex­orably linked to indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture sys­tems. These pose a dual risk, poten­tial­ly both trig­ger­ing glob­al crises and fail­ing to deliv­er pro­vi­sions. For our own wel­fare, we should ensure that there is more to the food land­scape than indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture, large-scale pro­cess­ing, and mega-retail.

The diverse pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion sys­tems that have long been on the periph­ery need prop­er fund­ing and nur­tur­ing, because they pro­vide a safe­ty net. If we fail to heed the root caus­es of sys­temic prob­lems in our food sup­ply, we will like­ly face anoth­er glob­al cri­sis per­ilous­ly unpre­pared.

Edi­tor’s Note: This arti­cle is repub­lished from The Con­ver­sa­tion under a Cre­ative Com­mons license. Read the orig­i­nal arti­cle.

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