5 lessons for food systems thinking from COVID-19

Susanna Klassen
Apr 1, 2020 · 8 min read

Around the world, people are trying to make sense of what the COVID-19 pandemic means for them. For some, this means figuring out how to feed their families and pay rent on a reduced income. For many, it means avoiding catching the deadly virus amidst continued challenges accessing the privileges of secure housing, sanitation, personal space for social distancing, and other basic needs. If you’re lucky, it’s adapting to working from home and the solitude of social distancing.

I am privileged enough to be in the latter camp. As a way of making sense of the ever-evolving news cycle, the updates from various food organizations, and the shared feeling among my colleagues that we want to make ourselves useful, I wanted to share some of the reflections I have had on what the COVID-19 pandemic reminds us about the food system.

What are we (re)learning in this moment about how food systems are impacted by crises? How will it influence the way we think about, study and work to transform our food systems moving forward?

1. Food does not equal food security

This is food systems 101 right here, but the narrative that more food in existence leads to more food in people’s mouths is still shockingly pervasive. With COVID-19, it is clearer than ever that in these assumptions is a cavernous gap in our understanding of the intricacies of trade, supply chains, income inequality and other risk factors for food insecurity. As incomes are threatened, borders tighten, businesses shut down, and as the most vulnerable in our society become yet more vulnerable to all sorts of threats, rates of food insecurity are likely to increase. All this can happen without any changes to the amount of food produced (though certainly that could also change).

While there are important variations by geographic and socio-economic context (absolute food scarcity is a problem in some regions of the world), it is clear that (1) the supply chains that get food from the place where it is harvested to a place where people can access it, and (2) the resources that those people need to be able to access it, are crucial determinants of food security. This should not need repeating, but it does. If we want to better understand food security, and which systems are likely to improve it, we need to stop glossing over this part of the food system in our research by, for example, assuming that food not wasted is just as good as eaten, or discounting entire production systems because their yield is lower, as if the only possible answer to every food security challenge is more food.

It is not enough to hope the neo-Malthusian narrative goes away, we need to actively work to break it down.

2. Food workers are essential, and should be treated as such

In the wake of the economic downturn and public panic to stock up on food, some grocery store workers, food delivery workers, and in some cases, farm workers, are getting the boost in public support that they have deserved since — well — always.

COVID-19 notifications at a grocery store. Photo by Allie Smith.

In the US, some of the biggest retailers are giving pay hikes and bonuses in an effort to retain employees. Three states have designated grocery store employees as emergency workers, enabling governments to provide workers with much-needed childcare. And in a great example of collective bargaining in a sector with high occupational health risks, the United Food and Commercial Workers announced a significant deal for increased pay and benefit packages for more than 60,000 meat-packing workers.

The new Canada Emergency Response Benefit package provides some relief for those who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19, filling gaps for those without paid sick leave. But the package is still heavily criticized as it excludes hundreds of thousands of people who were already struggling to make ends meet, and for putting relatively little into people’s pockets compared to the billions going to companies (not to mention the corporate bailout of the oil and gas industry).

While some have been able to leverage the current moment to get the much-needed improvements to pay and benefits, many are still fighting for protections for their frontline work. Amazon (and subsidiary Whole Foods) continues to deny workers guaranteed paid sick leave, not only forcing those who are sick or at risk to deal with the loss of income, but increasing the chances of spread of coronavirus to other employees and their communities.

And while farmers across Canada are celebrating the exemption of temporary farm workers from the travel ban, migrant rights organizations are calling for necessary follow-through not just to ensure workers can get to the fields, but that they are given adequate protections to ensure their health, safety and dignity — and continued capacity to produce our food — once they get there (which unfortunately, was not guaranteed even without the risk presented by COVID-19).

This crisis further underscores the need to ensure that the quality of jobs is commensurate with the importance, risk and difficulty of the tasks. Why were we as a society OK with our food workers having some of the worst working conditions in the first place? To echo sociologist and critical food systems scholar Anelyse Weiler, we need to take this opportunity to challenge the false moral choice between food security for Canadians and migrant worker rights, and instead prioritize better working conditions for these critical workers.

It is shameful that only in a crisis do our societies recognize the contribution of food workers to our collective well-being. The social and economic costs of chronic injustice for food workers deserves sustained attention and urgent redress. This is a moment for food systems scholars to ask critical questions and gather evidence to help inform it.

3. Migration, borders and trade matter

Simplification is a necessary feature of research. We must bound the scope of our studies, make assumptions, and generalize. The globalized world certainly makes matters more complicated with massive movement of goods and people across borders, making it far too easy to ignore — for example — the conditions in migrants’ country of origin that causes them to migrate in the first place (and what caused them), or the way that we export our environmental harms to other places when we out-source production, manufacturing or processing of goods.

In many ways, this crisis has forced us all to think more locally. Travel is restricted, many of us are bound to our homes (those of us lucky enough to have them), and concern for the wellbeing of our local communities — including neighbours and small businesses — are top of mind. This has revived discussions about the resilience and importance of local food systems. And it is tempting to turn inward as individuals, and for governments to introduce more protectionist policies.

But the drivers and impacts of our globalized society are more important than ever. This virus does not recognize borders, nor will it discriminate by passport or country of origin. Of course, not every study will include the complexities of trade, migration and border dynamics. But for food systems scholarship and food policy alike, COVID-19 has underscored the need to continue to both think beyond borders, and to focus on what they can and cannot do.

4. We need to focus on nutrition security

Questions around whether the food available matches nutritional needs are re-surfacing in the face of increased pressure on supply chains and tighter border controls. Research finds that on a global scale, we over-produce grains, sugars and fats, while our production of nutritionally dense vegetables, fruits and proteins are insufficient to meet the needs of the global population. In a country-level assessment of availability of fruit and vegetables, another study from 2019 found that by a conservative estimate, only 81 countries representing 55% of the world’s population had adequate access to fruit and vegetables as of 2015. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa are of particular concern, with a global projection that by 2050 between 0.8 and 1.9 billion people will be living in countries with lower than average recommended supply to fruit and vegetables.

For Canada (where I study at the University of British Columbia) and the US (where I currently live), current access to fruit and vegetables is fairly high, as a result of international trade. According to a British Columbia (BC) focused report from 2014, 67% of BC vegetable imports came from the U.S., over half of which were produced in California. International trade offers some measure of food system resilience but it has risks, too. California’s production, for example, is at a heightened risk from drought and wildfires due to poor resource management and the effects of climate change.

5. Crises amplify inequities, and inequities hurt everyone

In a very tangible way, the coronavirus illustrates a point that social justice advocates have been making for a very long time: that societies are only as strong as their most vulnerable. Perhaps most succinctly put by a recent New York Times article: “As Coronavirus Deepens Inequality, Inequality Worsens Its Spread”.

Quote attributed to Lila Watson, and the Aboriginal Activists Group From Queensland, Australia that she was a part of. Print by Ricardo Levins Morales.

We know that crises hit our most vulnerable hardest. Because of the uneven burden of domestic labour and care work, the increased risk of domestic violence, alongside other economic disadvantages, women will be hit harder by the socio-economic impacts of the coronavirus. Indigenous people also face disproportionately high risk of being impacted by the outbreak due to high incidence of pre-existing health conditions, living in shared housing, and often poor healthcare facilities in remote communities and on reserve — legacies of colonization as well as ongoing lack of government investment (and current government responses that do not adequately address these needs). The same chronic diseases that make individuals more at risk of COVID-19 (cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory diseases and hypertension), are also more prevalent among the food insecure population, which in Canada is three times higher in Indigenous communities and in black households. And of course, outside of North America, governments in the Global South fear the disastrous ramifications of shutting down their economies to encourage social distancing, not to mention inequitable access to basic necessities like hand-washing facilities.

Given the anticipated long-term impacts of the COVID-19 induced crisis, as well as on-going system shocks and stresses caused by the climate crisis, resilience in agricultural and food systems merits more study than ever before. What we have been reminded is that inequity itself undermines resilience, and thus needs to be centred in our assessment of it.

Final thoughts

Civil society groups working on food systems change have argued that this crisis presents an opening to do things differently. Indeed, many are poised to use this crisis for transformation — coalescing around issues like a Universal Basic Income and rights and protections for migrant workers, and using strategies like rent strikes to build collective power. Are we as scholars equally poised to respond? Or alternatively, are we courageous enough to support their efforts where they align?

I’d like to thank Sophia Murphy and Navin Ramankutty for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this post.

the nature of food

reflections of an interdisciplinary research lab studying…

the nature of food

reflections of an interdisciplinary research lab studying agriculture, food security and the environment at the University of British Columbia.

Susanna Klassen

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Researching food systems sustainability, social equity and ecological health, & the governance and policy pathways to get us there. @susanna_elsie

the nature of food

reflections of an interdisciplinary research lab studying agriculture, food security and the environment at the University of British Columbia.