Covid lays waste to fragile, unjust food system in need of rescue

·3-min read

As the Covid pandemic unravels the world’s food security, disrupting supply chains and causing widespread hunger – even in wealthy countries – local producers are at the centre of a complete rethink of how we should be feeding ourselves.

In a year that saw supermarkets run out of staples such as eggs and flour, and meat-packing plants turn into virus hotspots, the fragility of our sophisticated global supply network became quickly apparent.

Large-scale harvests were left to rot amid disruption to food processing factories and transport networks – and as a result of border closures.

“We've always said that our food system worked just fine for what it was supposed to do – cheap fast food for the majority of people,” says Katherine Miller, a food policy consultant in Washington DC. “Covid laid waste to that.”

But in the space of a year, millions of people have been pushed into hunger and poverty, with the UN warning 1 in 33 people worldwide in 2021 will rely on humanitarian aid.

Food for thought

Of course, a redesign of our food systems was already in play before the pandemic took hold, with the climate crisis driving the need for urgent change.

Covid has fuelled that momentum at lightning pace, also revealing the stark inequalities for those along the supply chain who have been able to access financial help.

Now, businesses big and small are waking up to the need to diversify and help bring about food systems that are both strong and sustainable.

Farmers markets, in particular, have emerged as a welcome antidote to food shortages and rocketing grocery prices. In the US, chefs and restaurants – hard hit by the pandemic – are also a big part of the solution.

“One of the bright spots of Covid-19 for chefs and restaurants has been a reimagining of reinvestment in local and regional food,” says Miller, adding that they have had to look closer to home to source ingredients.

“We saw them building partnerships with farmers and local fishermen … Chefs and restaurateurs have really stood up and tried to work with local and regional food advocates to design new policies and to put forth new priorities.”

Indigenous lesson

Among the proposed solutions to the breakdown of big agriculture is a push to revitalise the food systems of indigenous peoples, who have themselves been unfairly hit by Covid.

“Our BIPOC and indigenous communities have really shown us how…you can eat off the land,” says Miller, who adds that Americans typically imagine a “red barn with large silos, open fields and black and white cows” when they think of the way their food is produced.

“Covid has taught us we can't always have everything we want when exactly when we want it; we have to learn to adapt and change. And the same is true of our food system.”

Food security has taken a leap to the heart of the global agenda, with the World Food Programme winning the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize, and the UN planning its first ever Food Systems Summit in September.

“It is unacceptable that hunger is on the rise at a time when the world wastes more than 1 billion tonnes of food every year,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres says on the event’s website.

“It is time to change how we produce and consume.”