Post-coronavirus, how can we achieve food justice?

by Sarah Wild

The coronavirus pandemic disrupted the global food system and emphasised its structural inequity – from unequal food distribution to workers in the system going hungry. Experts are calling for a reimagining of the way we produce and distribute food so that everyone can access quality food. Despite producing more food by volume than humanity has to date, millions of people remain food insecure. Agriculture is also a major contributor to environmental degradation and climate change.

Horizon asked five food experts and activists what their top priority is for achieving food justice – ensuring that everyone on the planet has access to affordable, sustainable, healthy food.

1. Covid-19 shocked the food system, accelerated digital changes. To benefit everybody, we need resilient systems that can deal with future shocks

– Dr Johan Swinnen, director general, International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington DC, US

The big question right now is how to make the food system more resilient. Covid-19 is a good illustration of why we need it. The predictions in March and April showed that there were enough basic foods in the world. There were high stocks of rice and grains, and good harvests were predicted for 2020. There was no reason to be afraid of food shortages at a global level. But Covid-19 affected the link between consumers and producers – markets had to close down because of the direct effect of the disease or lockdowns imposed by governments. (Then) there is too much produce at the farm level, because they cannot sell, but there isn’t enough on the consumer level because they can’t buy it.

Covid-19 gave a huge shock to the (food) system, but also to the thinking of people about the system. People have realised that we should think about the resilience of the system. Instead of seeing shocks as an abnormal thing, we are now moving to a thinking that shocks will be a regular occurrence and we need food systems that will be able to deal with those shocks when they arrive.

In the private sector, the introduction of digital technologies in food systems, such as e-commerce, is now going forward at a pace that people thought until quite recently was impossible. Talk to company managers, they had thought to introduce these digital technologies in 15 years in developing countries. Now, it is being done in a much shorter time. And it’s not just big companies, but cooperatives and consumer groups that want to be part of this new world. They want to ensure that the systems being set up are benefiting everybody and not just the Walmarts or Alibabas of the world.

2. Government regulations can improve the food environment for consumers

– Dr Silke Thiele, Institute of Food Economics and Consumption Studies, University of Kiel, Germany.

We have a lot of incentives to buy unhealthy and unsustainable foods instead of healthy and sustainable ones and we need better government regulations to improve the food environment and correct this market failure. Obesity and diet-related problems are higher for people with lower socioeconomic status. And this is not just a cost for individuals, but also society as a whole.

There is also an information asymmetry, with consumers having less information about products’ health and sustainability than the producer. The situation has improved in the last few years as we have improved food labelling, but consumers still have high information costs when planning their diet in terms of both healthiness and sustainability.

We need government intervention to improve food information, such as on food labelling regulations, to implement fiscal measures, such as sugar taxes, and to improve the food environment in general by, for example, reducing food packaging sizes, banning advertising on junk food, and reducing sugar content in general. That said, it is very important to check the measures and monitor whether they are working as intended, with the main goal of helping people eat healthy, sustainable food.

From left to right: Dr Johan Swinnen, Dr Silke Thiele and Prof. Olivier De Schutter. Image credit - Johan Swinnen, Dr Silke Thiele, IPES Food
From left to right: Dr Johan Swinnen, Dr Silke Thiele and Prof. Olivier De Schutter. Image credit – Johan Swinnen, Dr Silke Thiele, IPES Food

3. The paradox of our food system is that it marginalises many food producers. We need to give them back their voices.

– Prof. Olivier De Schutterco-chair IPES-Food and UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights

The Covid-19 crisis laid bare the fragilities of the system we inherited — in particular, our growing dependence on global supply chains that may be disrupted, and our dependence on migrant seasonal workers that may face sudden restrictions to their mobility. And many voices now are calling for a rethink, so that we treat food, like medicine and healthcare material, as a strategic good.

In the last 40, 50 years, we’ve been making choices in terms of agricultural and research and development policies that have sought to improve the efficiency of food systems at the expense of small-scale farms and local food systems. By prioritising economies of scale, large-scale farms and thus the ability to mechanise, long supply chains, and encouraging the division of labour between regions and countries, we have marginalised many actors in the food system. We have (also) overlooked the important and negative environmental impacts of large-scale agriculture, such as decreasing biodiversity.

Food justice is about giving those people a voice, recognising the services they provide to communities and reshaping policies so that these people can be better integrated into the food systems. The paradox we have today is that despite a huge increase in productivity and in the absolute volume of food produced, more than 800 million people in the world are undernourished and a significant part of these hungry people are actually actors in food systems. These people include small-scale farmers, indigenous groups who rely on natural habitats such as forests, and farm workers who are not guaranteed a minimum wage and are informally employed and so can’t complain. A significant portion of people who are not served by the food system are actually part of the food system.

4. People must be empowered to produce their own healthy food through localised systems

– Reinhold Mangundu, sustainable development activist, Real Food Systems youth leader, and postgraduate student at the Stellenbosch University, South Africa 

The Covid-19 pandemic has a massive impact on food justice. Lockdowns from all over the world have affected the production and distribution of food along long value chains and workers along the value chain have been exposed to the virus.

Our inability to produce our own healthy and locally available food has left us to suffer in the hands of big food regimes. They have power over the production, distribution, and selling.

People need to have sovereignty over the type of food they produce. Food justice fights for the decentralisation of food production. For us to achieve food justice, we need more localised sustainable food systems, more food production through agroecological practices such as permaculture where people can grow food through sustainable ways imitating nature’s ecological processes.

Food activists from all over the world are pushing to localise food systems through a spectrum of initiatives. Food sovereignty movements give power to local people to produce their own healthy food. This bottom-up approach involves fighting for the rights of local farmers. In communities, more food networks can also be established, where people grow and exchange food produce.

5. Ensuring sustainable food is available to all means we must pay food producers more

– Dr Adrian Muller, Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) and ETH Zurich, Switzerland 

The core aspect of food justice is that good, healthy, sustainable food is affordable to everybody. Key aspects of food justice are how it is produced and that the people producing should be able to make a good living. For that, we need to pay on the consumer side and food needs to be more expensive, but at the same time sustainable, healthy food should not be a luxury product.

Starting with harvesters and farmers, there has to be a decent wage and this will be reflected in the products. In the food system, there are so many badly paid jobs, and this maybe is a thing we could learn from the Covid-19 pandemic. It made visible a lot of jobs that are badly paid, such as in the healthcare sector. People have now said that these are (critical) system-relevant jobs and we need to pay these people more.

(For food) there are subsidies in the agricultural system, but they should be distributed in a better way that allows for sustainable production on the environmental and social side. There is a move in this direction in the European Union’s Farm to Fork strategy.

From left to right: Reinhold Mangundu, Dr Adrian Muller. Image credits - Reinhold Mangundu, FiBL
From left to right: Reinhold Mangundu, Dr Adrian Muller. Image credits – Reinhold Mangundu, FiBL

As told to Sarah Wild.

Johan Swinnen and Dr Silke Thiele will be speaking about building a post-Covid-19 sustainable food system at the European Research and Innovation Days conference which will take place online from 22-24 September.

Published by Horizon 

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