The Coronavirus and the Future of Food

Public Domain. ABC of Victory Gardens

Yet another reason why we need a more resilient food system.

Katherine Martinko wrote a few years ago:

Before we had ‘local food,’ we just had food. Communities fed themselves with whatever was produced in the region, with farmers selling directly to stores and customers. It was unheard of to truck vegetables from Florida or California all year round in order to feed hungry people in the central U.S.

This wasn't entirely true; Tropicana ran orange juice trains from Florida, and Chicago was famously the "hog butcher to the world." But even that famous meat delivery system is breaking down; Tyson Foods is having trouble keeping its big meat factories running because of the coronavirus. According to its CEO, quoted in Global Meat News,

Our meat and poultry plants are experiencing varying levels of production impact, due to the planned implementation of additional worker safety precautions and worker absenteeism. For example, out of an abundance of caution, we have suspended operations at our Columbus Junction, Iowa, pork plant this week due to more than two dozen cases of COVID-19 involving team members at the facility.

Food nationalism is on the rise.

Internationally, there may be a repeat of the economic crisis a dozen years ago, when rice-producing nations stopped exports because they were worried about supplying the local market, and the price of rice tripled to $1,000 a tonne. According to This Week in Asia, Vietnam is limiting exports. "The country is responsible for about 10 percent of global rice trade – an exceptionally tight market with just about six percent of all rice traded – and a long-term disruption could roil much of Asia, where the carbohydrate is the main staple." Russia, the world's largest exporter of wheat, has cut way back. Wheat prices in Europe are increasing dramatically due to lack of transport capacity.

Migrant workers in California

© Migrant workers in California /Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Closer to home, it's getting harder to find people to pick vegetables. According to the Los Angeles Times, "California’s nearly $50-billion agricultural industry is bracing for a potential labor shortfall that could hinder efforts to maintain the nation’s fresh produce supply amid the widening coronavirus outbreak."

Supply chain problems are creating "a disastrous situation."

A pile of zucchini and squash was discarded by a farmer in Florida City, Florida, in early April. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
© A pile of zucchini and squash was discarded by a farmer in Florida City, Florida, in early April. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Susie Cagle writes in the Guardian that fresh food is being ploughed under because of a supply and demand mismatch; so much of the food that was grown for restaurants and foodservice has lost its market, and there are no alternatives that could get the food to people who could use it, such as food banks. She quotes Brian Greene, CEO of Houston Food Bank:

“The reality is what makes the food chain work normally is there are just tens of thousands of arrangements that have been developed over time in order to match supply and demand. Then you just suddenly break all that and you’re trying to, with voluntary relationships, piece something together in a very short timeframe,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of failure.”

Borders are thickening.

Mulroney and Reagan

Mulroney and Reagan singing "when Irish eyes are smiling"/ Reagan Library/Video screen capture

North of the border, Canadians were shocked to the core recently when the American president considered sending troops to close the border and told 3M to stop shipping N95 masks to Canada, 35 years after President Reagan and Prime Minister Mulroney sang together and agreed to integration of the economies. Almost everything they buy comes from the USA now, even ketchup. What if the border gets closed to food?

It's time for a rethink about how we get our food.

Ten years ago, when discussing the need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, we noted that the internationalized food system had a transportation problem (as we do now with truckers getting sick and not having bathrooms), a fertilizer problem (made from natural gas), a distribution problem, and a seasonal problem. I concluded:

It isn't just about growing our food locally and buying it at the farmers market. To really change our food system so that we are not eating fossil fuels we have to look at the way our cities are designed, how our waste system works, how the distribution system is set up, and what we do in the developing world that has become our out-of-season supplier. But making the decision to buy local and seasonal is a start.
digging for victory

British Library/Public Domain

And here we are again, addressing the same problems, with some of the same solutions. Writing for the Sustainable Food Trust in the UK, Patrick Holden notes that during the Second World War, people reacted to the crisis by growing their own vegetables as part of the "Dig for Victory" campaign. But things are different now.

The key difference between then and now is that during the 1940s there was still a comprehensive latticework of local food supply infrastructure which included production on Britain’s diverse mixed family farms, small dairies, packhouses, processing units, abattoirs, butchers and retail outlets. All this infrastructure provided a means of getting the raw materials to local populations in a secure and sustainable manner. This is more or less a perfect description of a resilient food system, but during the last five decades nearly all of this has disappeared. It has been replaced by a highly centralised commodity-based supermarket sourcing system, where typically each of the main commodities that are stocked on the shelves will have been produced by an ever-diminishing number of very large-scale farmers and growers operating monocultures, with the food they produced being processed and packed in one vast operation, and then transported to the stores, again through centralised warehouses in a ‘just-in-time’ distribution system.
McGill Collection

McGill Collection/Public Domain

That's where we are today, and as a proportion of income, food has never been cheaper. And anyone who patronizes the local farmers' market knows that there is a price to be paid for local and fresh food. But it's a price that we might have to pay if we want to have access to a safe, dependable and secure food supply. Holden concludes:

The key point is this: at a time when there is an unparalleled threat to the future health and wellbeing of citizens throughout the world, we must turn this potential catastrophe into an opportunity manifesting as a renaissance in the production, distribution and consumption of healthy, seasonal and local food. This is a time to build resilience and health into our food systems, from the ground up.

For years, the biggest knock against local food was the seasonality. One critic on Freakonomics said:

Taken literally, locavorism would block access to fresh produce for millions of Americans who live in climates that cannot, for many months per year, grow fruits and vegetables outside climate-controlled greenhouses. Greenhouse production is clearly energy-intensive and would impede environmental objectives. Blocking access to fresh produce would impede health objectives.
credit: McGill Collection

McGill Collection/Public Domain

But of course, that's not true; it is only in the last couple of decades that we have been trucking and flying fruit and vegetables around the world. In our house, we don't eat much out-of-season food and I don't have scurvy. People canned and preserved and ate different foods in winter.

Empty flour shelves in UK

© Empty flour shelves in UK/ ISABEL INFANTES/AFP via Getty Images

When you look at what is flying off the shelves right now, it's flour for baking, it's pasta and tomato sauces and things in bottles and cans, because the fridges and freezers can only carry so much fresh food. People recognize that when things get serious, you want shelf-stable food that doesn't need refrigeration.

In an earlier post, Katherine Martinko described how to build a strong local food system. She noted that the system can't support local food efficiently: "We lack the supply chain – the processing, distribution, and marketing ‘infrastructure’ – to move food from farm to fork.”

Now it looks like we are entering a new era of food protectionism and nationalism, of every country for itself. We are seeing countries hoarding wheat, rice and even vegetable oils. DW says, "Countries are hoarding food items to ensure supplies for their population as the virus crisis deepens."

Perhaps it's time to recognize the high price of cheap food. To acknowledge the failure of economic integration. To recognize that when it comes to the crunch, we have to look to our neighbors, our local community, and our own backyards. To build and support that local supply chain to move local and seasonal food from farm to fork.

We are learning a lot from this virus.