Could the shocks from COVID-19 lead to a new food system?

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Image: Nathan Adams/Flickr

What a difference a few months can make.

This pandemic is leading people to consider and act in ways that just a few weeks ago would have been hard to imagine.

On Facebook, people are pulling out recipes for everything from sourdough starter, to yeastless breads, homemade granolas and sauerkraut.

But there is also a deeper change occurring as people eye their balconies, and front and back yards, wondering how they might grow a few vegetables instead of flowers. What can be grown from seed and what is best planted as a seedling? How can my flower pot be turned into a vegetable pot? Will radishes and lettuce do well on this small patch?

COVID-19 is bringing about thinking and behavioural change that all the fears of climate change have been unable to activate and in a much shorter time span. As days of physical distancing turn into weeks and months, thinking about food security is increasingly on the front burner.

And while some individuals might be in despair, others are mobilizing.

Some consumers might still be wondering why transnationals such as Costco have empty shelves. Others have turned to local farmers and distributors, eager to support small businesses who might be suffering, but also recognizing that their own preservation requires more respect and support for local food sources.

Just Food, an Ottawa non-profit supporting sustainable food and farming, just a few weeks ago urged its members to send letters to their local MPs and elected city officials, lobbying to ensure community gardens and farmers markets are allowed to remain open during the pandemic. Part of that call was also the request for increased space for community gardens and education programs to help those who have never gardened before learn the ropes. Similar efforts have been in the works in communities across the country.

Meanwhile, community-supported agriculture (CSA) is one way that individuals who do not or cannot farm or garden can support local food producers. Basically, a food consumer pays in advance for a weekly box of fresh produce for pick up or delivery throughout the May to October growing season. This provides the farmer with cash to cover some of the production costs, and consumers with a secure source of fresh local produce. The CSA model works for some individuals who have maintained a stable source of income during COVID-19, but is much more difficult for others who cannot pay in advance for produce.

Other farms are delivering food boxes on a weekly payment schedule rather than through a pre-paid CSA. Small producers located near cities are able to deliver beef, chicken, pork and other products to their urban neighbours, and many are busier than they have ever been.

There is also a growing call in Canada as well internationally for a move away from the model of industrialized agriculture and factory farming to models that promote small scale, local, agroecological models. The demand for deeper thinking and transformation of our agricultural and food system is at the root of many recent efforts, from letters to government, to longer reports circulated internationally.

In early April, Food Secure Canada, along with dozens of other organizations and individuals, sent an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to "call for immediate transformative change to Canada's food, agriculture, and fisheries systems from an industrial to an agroecological model. Agroecology is farming with nature to improve soil health, biodiversity, and natural ecosystem function; to increase the capability of land to sequester carbon; and to provide local, seasonal, healthy food. Its basic principles can also be applied to fisheries." Food Secure Canada has been chronicling the various policy statements and documents related to the food movement and COVID-19.

Food Secure Canada, which has over the last several years lobbied hard for better food policies federally, is also doing so during the time of COVID-19 -- at the same time as trying to ensure its members and others are able to learn about what is required. It recently hosted two very important webinars. These are worth a listen.

The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems has published at 10-page communiqué entitled "COVID-19 and The Crisis in Food Systems: Symptoms, Causes, and Potential Solutions." The report provides analysis on how the pandemic should lead to a new food system based on agroecology.

There is also growing concern regarding the foreign labour that is required to harvest crops in some parts of Canada. Without foreign labour, many farms, particularly larger vegetable operations, would not be able to operate. But the conditions under which these farm workers labour and are housed has been an issue for years. Now, with COVID-19, the control of the virus, conditions on the farm and waivers that some workers have been asked to sign, are causing increasing concern. The issue of local labour, poorly paid foreign labour, and undesirable working conditions will continue to be highlighted in the coming months.

So, as the fragility of our food system comes into focus, there are also those who are delving into the links between how we produce food, factory farming and the potential of ever-increasing pandemics. A recent article in The Guardian, titled "We Have To Wake Up: Factory Farms Are the Breeding Grounds For Pandemics," urges us to think about the root causes of pandemics and how our industrialized food systems are directly responsible for endangering the global population.

Meanwhile, the agroecological food movement's growing activism will eventually bring into focus the costs of production and pricing of locally produced food, as opposed to the cheap food that has been the promise of the industrialized model of agriculture. Agricultural polices in future may well have to take into account that if we want farmers and food security and healthy populations, then we need to ensure that farmer and farm workers are paid fairly in this country. It is an issue that has been festering for decades, and once we are through this pandemic, it should be a priority on the federal government's policy agenda.

Otherwise we could well end up exactly where we are … in future pandemics.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Image: Nathan Adams/Flickr

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