Kirill O. Thompson
National Taiwan University
The present study explores how Covid-19 is impacting the food system and food security as well as intensifying future food challenges. We first consider the pre-Covid-19 understanding of the major food system issues and challenges, then on the eve of the pandemic on the eve of the pandemic in early 2020, finally focusing on these issues and challenges during the onset of Covid-19.
I.The previous normal
Samir Dani (2015, p. 235) asserted that the main problem “for sustainable food security [on a global scale] is the continuously expanding human populations.” A UN study found this population growth to be concentrated in low-income countries and identified several major contributing factors: GDP growth, educational attainment, access to contraception, reduced infant mortality, and improved gender equality, and notably female education (Dani 2015 p. 236).
As to meeting challenges to food production, several approaches were being advocated and taken: experts from private and public organizations were dispatched to work with small farmers and other producers to improve efficiency and productivity; policy was formulated to address operational difficulties, tackle food waste, (*1) and develop new technologies. Food trade issues remained complex and sensitive, as governments prioritized food security over crucial free markets and trade. While the mantra of the early 21st century had been for the nations of the world to adopt a cooperative approach to food trade, protectionism has seen growing popular and thus political appeal. Challenges for the food system, from more to less urgent, included balancing food supply and demand, reducing volatility in the food system, ending hunger in the world, reducing food system emissions, and maintaining biodiversity and ecosystems.
Climate change and its uncertain impacts were viewed as looming stressors on agricultural production and global markets. It was known that food production would be impacted by the resulting ecological change and unstable weather. And, it was foreseen that the resulting food shortages and price rises would engender public health problems, as hungry populations are more susceptible to disease. Moreover, the unhealthy populations would be less productive, increasing poverty and reducing the ability to purchase food, creating a vicious cycle.
Other problems for the food system included overuse of water, expanding use of energy, and dwindling arable land. Stressors on farmland included not just development, urbanization, desertification, salinization, and sea level rises, but also soil degradation and erosion. (*2) The intensification of agriculture, with increased use of chemical pesticides and irrigation, created higher yields; however, it also reduced land fertility in the mid-term and adversely impacted local ecosystems in the long run.
As noted, the central challenge for the food system was balancing food supply and demand. Several levers were indicated: (1) increasing productivity to augment food supply. The approach was to remove inefficient steps from food production, including sources of waste, and make innovations in science and technology for better soil, seed, machinery, automation, etc. (2) Reducing waste, in the field, storage and transit in developing countries; in grocery markets, restaurants, cafeterias, and consumers’ homes in developed countries. (3) Improving food governance for quality and safety. National agencies needed to be made more consumer-minded and freer of industry influence. Global organizations, like WTO, needed to be strengthened. (4) Educating consumers-- with food information, school trips, public announcements, etc.-- to think more carefully about the food products they purchase and eat and to be more open to trying different kinds of foods.
*1 Food waste remains a problem. For a recent overview, see Lauren Stine (July 17, 2020).
*2 In some developing countries, large tracts of jungle and forest were, and are, being cleared to grow cash crops, to the detriment of ecosystems and natural absorbers of greenhouse gases.
II.Early 2020: the eve of the Covid-19 pandemic
By 2020, the global food supply system was actively adapting to internal and external trends and forces. Internally, trends included effectively transferring knowledge and technology to farmers to improve crop yields and introduce new crops, as well as the provision of improved access to water, waste recycling, and soil analysis. Internal forces included the opening of global markets to global players that would sell farm supplies and purchase crops. Externally, trends included declining soil fertility, dwindling biodiversity, and economic uncertainty. External forces included blights, diseases, weather anomalies, and accelerating climate change.
The internal trends and forces also included increased competition for farm production by local, regional, and global markets. The external trends and forces stirred farmers to introduce sustainable practices that reduce emissions and enhance the ecosystem and biodiversity, which in turn would improve soil fertility and the local ecology. Moreover, farmers increasingly heeded climate and weather trends and were relatively prepared to change their crops and livestock to suit new conditions. The catchwords for farmers were to adopt sustainable practices, be flexible, and aim for resilience.
A dominant force in the food system is big agribusiness. Big food corporations consolidate sourcing and centralize processing and distribution. Whereas farmers traditionally have raised crops and livestock for local and regional markets, big corporations seek to contract production, like chickens or hogs, grown in large facilities. Initially, the farmers liked the prospect of selling livestock directly to a food corporation, and avoiding the uncertainty of open markets. Over time, the monetary rewards declined because the corporations slyly over-contracted supply, driving down livestock prices. (*3) The large food corporations also disrupted local markets by siphoning producers and supply and by hooking consumers on more expensive non-local processed foods.
As to the external trends and forces, the inroads of industrial scale agriculture weakened farmer attentiveness to external issues, such as by insisting that they focus on crop management, including use of GMO seeds, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Moreover, many farms themselves were consolidated to larger scale operations; where the small farmers had once tended their crops and heeded the eco-setting with care, low-paid hired hands now brusquely ran large machinery roughshod across the fields. The monolithic large farms have proved slower to adapt to changes of climate and ecosystem.
*3 The meat packers could claim they were over-contracting meat supplies as a hedge against supply shortfalls due to unforeseen problems on the farms, such as disease, fire, or natural disaster. (While the occurrence of such problems on the farm would be unlikely, the benefit of lower supply price to the meatpackers would be assured.)
III. March 2020, Covid-19 strikes in earnest
When the Covid-19 pandemic struck in earnest during the 2020 planting season, it was the centralized, large-scale food systems that proved to be the most vulnerable, particularly as centralized slaughterhouses and meat processing centers became Covid-19 hotspots. In consequence, a group of scholars in agriculture, food, ecology, and climate issued “a blueprint” in June 2020 for making food production more resilient to both climate and non-climate shocks” (Gustin July 7, 2020). Bruce Campbell, a member of the group, remarked, "The disruptions caused by this terrible pandemic have … awakened the world to the fact that our food systems are far more vulnerable than many realized…. Climate change is already compounding these problems, but the solutions we present—which seek bold transformations in everything from farming to trade, diet, and government policies—offer an opportunity to pursue a much brighter future for people and our planet" (Gustin July 7, 2020).The sort of transformation this group proposes is ambitious, complex, and far-reaching. They suggest a range of new commitments and shifts, such as incentivizing farmers to cut CO2 emissions, prohibiting the opening of new farmland, shifting to less carbon-intensive diets, reducing food waste pockets, and conserving soil fertility by growing carbon-retaining crops in the off-season.
Covid 19 has disrupted food production and imposed rigorous stress tests on the entire food system from field to table. Few realize that the number of “deaths from starvation” due to this disruption exceeds that from “the disease itself” (Godin 2020). The pandemic has caused weaknesses in the global food system to become glaring. OxFam reports that 120+ million additional people are at risk of starvation due to the disruptions in food supply and distribution in hand with reduced aid and economic recession throughout the world economy (OxFam July 7, 2020). COVID-19 is the tipping point for millions upon millions of people who are already buffeted by conflict, migration, and crop failure. According to UN estimates, a quarter billion people are already at risk of starvation this year due to these causes. The most affected areas include Sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and South Asia, as well as Haiti and Syria.
Besides the international and national policy measures needed to ameliorate the food crisis and looming famine, farmers must strive to make their food production more sustainable, climate friendly, and resilient. While the global economy is prosperous and food production and supplies are at unprecedented highs, food is not equitably distributed, and it is most scarce where it is most needed. Ironically, with a more equitable distribution system, present-day food production and supply would be sufficient to provision teeming humanity without sacrificing the quality and variety of foods expected in advanced economies and markets.
How to set the conditions for provisioning teeming humanity while maintaining the quality and variety of advanced food economies? How to make the food supply sustainable, resilient, and resistant to looming risks? Market mechanisms need to be made fairer and more efficient and transparent by rational official policies and mechanisms;(*4) the organizations responsible need to engage in regional and international cooperation, dedicated to the ideals of equitable distribution, on the one hand, and fair competition, on the other.
*4 Official policy needs to be objective, scientifically-based and yet nuanced to accommodate the vast variety of food production operations: According to a UNFAO report, “Appropriate governance mechanisms need to be established at regional and country levels. At global level, the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) provides a unique platform for food security governance. At regional, national and sub-national levels, various sectoral policies and programs need to be designed and coordinated in ways that ensure relevance and purposeful action towards the eradication of hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition. Good practices that lead to greater impact, including through human rights-based approaches and gender-sensitive policies, programs and investments, need to be promoted;…” (“What Needs to be done,” under “Food Security and the Right to Food,” UNFAO (current) Sustainable Development Goals.”).
- Anthem, Paul (April 7, 2020). “Risk of hunger pandemic as coronavirus set to almost double acute hunger by end of 2020.” UN World Food Programme Insight. (Available online).
- Dani, Samir (2015). Food Supply Chain Management and Logistics: From Farm to Fork. London, Philadelphia, and New Delhi: Kegan Page.
- Godin, Melissa (July 9, 2020). “COVID-19 linked hunger could cause more deaths than the disease itself, report finds.” Time Health Newsletter. (Available online.)
- Gustin, Georgiana (July 7, 2020). “Think Covid-19 Disrupted the Food Chain? Wait and See What Climate Change Will Do.” Inside Climate News. (Available online.)
- OxFam (July 9, 2020), “The hunger virus: how COVID-19 is fueling hunger in a hungry world.” Policy Papers, OxFam International. (Available online).
- Stine, Lauren (AgFunder) (July 17, 2020). “The Most Promising Technologies for Reducing Food Waste Throughout the Supply Chain.” In Successful Farming (online newsletter: https://agriculture.com/news/technology/the-most-promising-teachologies-for-reducing-food-waste-throughout-the-supply-chain ).
- UNFAO (current) Sustainable Development Goals (online document, periodically updated: http://www.fao.org/sustainable-development-goals/overview/fao-and-the-post-2015-development-agenda/food-security-and-the-right-to-food/en/).