COVID-19 Pandemic Highlights the Need to Fix the Flaws of Our Food Systems 

As the world is still evaluating the most effective response to halt the COVID-19 pandemic, the spread of the virus is profoundly impacting our food systems and exacerbating the economic inequalities and social injustices that already existed before. From the early days, the pandemic was linked to the consumption of wild animals and the impact of human activity on ecosystems. Since the outbreak, Slow Food has been vocal about the likely role played by industrial agriculture and the disruption of ecosystems in the emergence of coronaviruses. Meanwhile, the Slow Food network joined forces to respond to the crisis and to help the impacted businesses and communities throughout the world.

COVID-19’s Ripple Effects

Current lockdown measures, taken to slow down the spread of the virus, are having an adverse impact on global food chains, both short and long, as reported in IPES-Food’s communiqué. Travel restrictions are preventing seasonal workers from reaching the fields, putting entire harvests at risk. Export restrictions, introduced in a few countries, are halting crucial flows of staple foods: for example, as Vietnam has suspended its rice exports, Malaysia is left with only 2.5 months of rice supply, raising risks of increased food insecurity. 

Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pexels

Uncertainties are added to the already unstable livelihoods of farmers and farm workers. The International Labor Organization estimates that over 50% of farm workers live below the poverty line in the Global South. Migrant and undocumented farmworkers are at high risk as they often live and work in unsanitary conditions, are transported to fields on crowded buses, face hurdles in taking sick leave, and lack access to information. 

The closure and restrictions on informal and open-air markets are cutting off vital provisioning channels for communities and sales outlets for farmers. The situation is particularly worrying in the Global South countries where vulnerable populations rely on the informal sector for the sale and purchase of food. 

Exacerbating Inequalities 

The COVID-19 pandemic is deeply increasing already existing inequalities. Before the pandemic broke out, 820 million people worldwide were undernourished and 2 billion people experienced food insecurity. The Global Report on Food Crises, by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Food Programme and 14 other organizations, published last week, warns that the coronavirus crisis will have a dramatic impact on the access of vulnerable populations to food, on the availability of food, and on households’ income, which are likely to contribute to pushing more than a quarter of a billion people to the brink of starvation unless swift action is taken to provide food and humanitarian relief to the most at-risk regions.

Photo by Denniz Futalan from Pexels

Across the globe, the closure of schools has prevented millions of children from access to a daily free school meal, crucial to vulnerable low-income families. In Latin America, the number of children who seriously depend on these free meals is estimated to be over 10 million

Great inequalities also exist in fighting the virus; malnutrition in the forms of overweight, obesity, and undernutrition intrinsically linked to social class, race, and gender, has been found to be an important risk factor to the disease. Moving forward, the global economic recession is likely to further exacerbate rates of malnutrition as an impact on income will make access to healthy food even more difficult for many. 

Resilient Communities

On the other hand, the COVID-19 crisis is uncovering the strong resilience of local food systems, the adaptability of small-scale producers, food artisans and cooks, and the incredible power of communities. Community Support Agriculture (CSA) schemes have stayed strong, and observed increased demand in many countries, like in China where demand for CSA baskets increased by 300% in January. The up-front cashless payments, pre-packaged baskets, and the quick delivery or pickup systems are all surely playing a role in attracting new members. 

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Slow Food started its campaign #SlowFoodSolidarity, to showcase actions undertaken by Slow Food communities. Throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America, Australia, and the US, Slow Food groups have developed online maps, listing small-scale producers and farmers and encouraging people to support their production. Groups in Mexico, Spain, Belgium, South Africa, Turkey started doing home deliveries, primarily focusing on the most vulnerable populations. Slow Food cooks and restaurants in Belgium, Italy, the UK, and other countries are also providing food to frontline responders, hospitals, canteens, and homeless people. 

Beyond the Crisis

Slow Food urges decision makers to start building the foundations for sustainable food systems, and not to resort to business-as-usual solutions in response to the Covid-19 crisis. 

It is our core belief that decision makers at all levels should develop food policies that support local agroecological food systems – where the respect for those who produce food for the communities and the ecosystems is front and center, and which are based on short supply chains, and agrobiodiversity are proving to be more resilient to the current economic shocks and shocks to supply chains. 

In light of the crisis, Slow Food is advocating for and promoting fair and sustainable food systems across the globe. In the short term, Slow Food calls for immediate action to ensure that all workers in the local food chain can continue to sustain the local economy, provide fresh and nutritious food and build resilient economies and communities for the future. 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Slow Food USA is advocating for federal action, urging Congress to urgently support small and mid-scale, family farmers and ranchers, community and tribal-based fishers, farmworkers, and food chain workers as well as millions of families who, due to the pandemic, are facing food insecurity for the first time. Likewise, Slow Food in Uganda is asking decision makers to safeguard small-scale farmers and thereby ensure access to food to all. In the EU, Slow Food Europe is pushing for an ambitious Farm to Fork strategy, urging not to further postpone its launch due to the coronavirus as demanded by agro-industrial groups. The strategy, which is part of the European Green Deal, the roadmap for making the EU’s economy sustainable, is the opportunity to overhaul the EU’s food system.

Food sovereignty must be the driving principle in all immediate and future strategies: a more just and sustainable food system must be based on the right of people to healthy and culturally appropriate food and their right to define their food and agriculture systems.

The COVID-19 crisis has put on the spotlight the existing problems within our food and agricultural systems. The global Slow Food movement is putting all its efforts into ensuring that we build a solid basis for sustainable food systems. 

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