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Human Stories

COVID-19: An Opportunity To Change The Global Food System? | Opinion

I haven’t bought food from supermarkets, in person or on their websites, in four weeks. Self-isolation, empty shelves, and unavailable delivery slots have forced me to look for other ways to source my food.

Ironically, the only people who have proven able to deliver to my door in London are small or local entities – farmers, restaurant suppliers, and family-run wholesale distributors. I have been using interactive maps like Neighbour Food, which put people directly in touch with local farmers and food producers around the UK, to figure out who could supply my food when big distributors like Ocado, Amazon, and major grocery store chains are unable to deliver to the majority of the population. For the last month, I have been delivered weekly boxes from Smith & Brock and Bobtail Fruit, packed with local and seasonal vegetables, fruits, and other essentials such as eggs and milk. My belly has never been happier, but I’m now left with a burning question. Once coronavirus is more contained and my food shopping choices return to normal, should I go back to the way I shopped and consumed before? And even more importantly: Will I even want to?

Coronavirus has perhaps forced many people like me to experiment with how we get our food. Since we can’t always access all the foods we might want, we’ve had to resort to eating what’s around us. I’m at the mercy of what someone else decides to put in my produce box, probably based on what’s in stock and available that week. Mine have been overflowing with potatoes, carrots, onions, and weird cabbages I would never have looked for in a supermarket. 

The striking revelation for me has been that while I thought being conscientious in this way of eating – regional and seasonal – would be difficult, this crisis has taught me that it actually makes my life easier. Until a month ago, on an average night in London, I could have chosen to cook any recipe in the world. I would likely end up picking a recipe that required me to buy lots of ingredients that I didn’t have at home and didn’t use often. But I would still go and buy it all, cooking with those ingredients that night and never using some of them again. I wasn’t proud of myself, and even stuck reminders on my fridge titled: “Don’t waste!”. 

What I hadn’t realised was that this problem had to do with my perception of endless food availability. Now that the content of my fridge is almost entirely decided by some local farmers and suppliers, all my brainpower goes into a less stressful but more creative process of finding ways to put these ingredients together – working with what I have to cook something tasty and not waste any of it.

But is it even possible to go fully local?

Until now, I had consciously relied on products imported from all over the world – avocados, mangos, green beans, artichoke – all year round. But now I’ve started to ask myself if it’s even possible to go fully local in a world where the food system is interconnected in complex ways that I can’t fully grasp. It was staggering to find out that both my home country (Italy) and the country where I reside (UK) produce only roughly half of the total food consumed within their borders.1, 2

It seems that international supply chains permeate even what I would have considered local products. A biscuit manufactured in a British factory might have its salt coming from China, its milk and wheat from some country in the EU, its sugar from the Caribbean, and its cocoa from South America.3 As an Italian, I was astonished to discover that even many of the so-called “made in Italy” kinds of pasta are made of wheat from France, Canada, and Ukraine!4 On top of that, there are many ways food markets are interdependent besides moving food around: importing fertilisers, labour, veterinary medicines, and equipment parts, to mention a few. So even if we try to go as local as possible, there will always be some kind of international dependency. This is not intrinsically evil, nor new – we have been relying on foreign spices since the heydey of the Silk Road, as early as 2000 BCE!5

How will COVID-19 impact the global food system?

However, reflecting on this, I have grown increasingly curious to find out how much COVID-19 and its secondary effects would impact the interconnectedness of our food system. Everyone still needs food, which means global food markets are likely to be less affected than other sectors by the secondary effects of the COVID-19 crisis. However, even these markets are starting to be exposed to logistical disruptions and shifts in demand.6

The closure of EU frontiers is already affecting the mobility of almost a million seasonal farmworkers in the 27 countries of the European Union. Bans and restrictions on trade, as well as logistic bottlenecks, are disrupting food exports, forcing producers to waste enormous amounts of food.7

Read the impacts of coronavirus on food supply.

Many producers from African countries, despite rising demand for their foods from European suppliers, are struggling to deliver orders because more and more shipments are being blocked, and international deliveries are getting more expensive. Reuters recently reported that in Kenya, one of the main exporters of green beans and peas had to furlough half of its workers for these reasons.8

On top of logistical issues, many countries have imposed export bans to ensure there is enough supply and prices don’t rise too much within their borders. The law of supply and demand can help us to understand these measures. When supply is lower than demand, prices tend to go up. If demand is lower than supply, prices tend to go down.9 This means that, if the production of a certain product slows down because of the coronavirus (workers become ill or have to work respecting social distancing rules) and demand stays the same, prices for that product would tend to go up. But if a government bans or reduces exports of that same product, external demand will be reduced, supply will increase when compared to the country’s internal demand, and prices in the producer country will go down–at least in the short term.

Several countries seem to have adopted this reasoning despite FAO’s recommendations to avoid imposing trade barriers and to protect the flow of food around the world. Romania became the first country to cut off grain exports during the pandemic.10 The Eurasia Commission, which unites the custom zones of Russia (the main wheat exporter in the world), Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan, also decided to restrict exports of buckwheat, sunflower seeds, rice, rye, and soybeans, as well as vegetables like onions and potatoes, until June 30th. Millers and bakers in Ukraine have pushed the government to ban buckwheat exports until July 1st to avoid a rise in domestic bread prices. Vietnam, the world’s third-biggest rice exporter, has suspended rice exports. Cambodia has reduced rice exports, and Indian rice traders have stopped signing new export contracts. Egypt is also about to halt the export of legumes for three months to ensure enough local supply.11-12 Finding this out, I was left to wonder which countries will be hit harder by these measures. 

Will this affect us?

The main paradox of this situation is that the current market uncertainties are not linked to scarcity. The food is available; it’s just hard to move it around. Luckily for Europeans, nothing major should change, as food supply and stocking seem quite secure. The ratio between internal production, import, and stockpiling should be well balanced in European countries – which means that if we can’t get certain foods for a few months, especially when it comes to less perishable foods like grains and legumes, we should still be able to rely on internal production and stockpiling. However, we might see prices rising for meat and fish and fewer options when it comes to fruits and vegetables – especially those that are not seasonal or produced within the EU.13

The real cost of a healthy diet might become more inaccessible to people struggling financially. The real losers, however, will be those 133 million people on the planet who were already suffering from ‘severe acute food insecurity’. Most of these people live in rural areas and depend on agricultural production, seasonal jobs in agriculture, fishing or pastoralism. If they become ill or are prevented from working their land, caring for their animals, selling produce, or buying supplies, they will have very little to fall back on. They might have to sell their animals or fishing boats for cash or eat all the seeds that they were planning to replant.14

The people at the highest risk live in countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan. These countries rely heavily on imports to meet their needs, which means that imposed export restrictions by leading producing countries could cause significant disruptions in supply and could lead to price increases.15 On top of that, in these countries people often can’t afford the food they themselves produce because our foreign demand for it increases the price to an unaffordable rate. 

But coronavirus has also created opportunities for some success stories. In Kenya, for example, local fishermen have seen a boost in internal sales due to the slowing down of Chinese imports for frozen fillets. Fishermen have long complained that the cheap imports from China were strangling Kenyan local trade. As a result of the coronavirus crisis, however, a rush of Kenyan customers resorted to buying freshly caught fish from Lake Victoria. Unfortunately, we need to put this in perspective: Kenya will soon face shortages unless imports from China resume, as it produces just over a third of what it consumes.16 However, we can hope that this situation will create a legacy for Kenyans, who could keep buying fresh fish from their local fishermen in the future.

Learning about these realities could help us realise that, even if a food crisis doesn’t affect us first-hand, we have a direct impact on those who are at the other end of this heavily interconnected system. So yes, coronavirus perhaps won’t affect ‘us’ in EU countries so much. But it will certainly affect ‘us’ as members of a global community. 

How will we move forward?

As members of this interconnected global community, I believe it’s time to think about our avocados and green beans. Do we really need them once or multiple times a week all year round? Are we entitled to overindulge just because we like their taste or because they fit well into our diets? As this isolation rewires me to be more patient, I realise that perhaps I don’t need to have all the food I could imagine at any time of any day waiting for me on a supermarket shelf. 

While COVID-19 rocks the world, it offers a particularly unusual moment to reflect on whether we want to start over exactly the same way or whether we want this change to be for the long run. Is it possible that we could all benefit from being less spoiled, a bit less demanding, and a bit more caring? 

Of course, there is no absolute “local” versus “global”, and I don’t feel that suggesting a world where we close ourselves within our borders is a desirable, or even realistic, way forward - neither for us, nor for the many people whose lives depend on us buying the food they produce. However, I’m wondering if it’s possible that we would all benefit from strengthening these newly found direct connections with farmers, producers, and small suppliers – local and foreign – finding a new appreciation for food and empathy for those who produce it. 

I don’t have the answers; the questions are already much bigger than I am. But perhaps, if we all take this opportunity for self-reflection, together we will be able to find the solution for a more empowering and inclusive future.

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