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FIVE WAYS THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC HAS IMPACTED OUR FOOD SYSTEM

Photography by Ana Shvets

IN LIGHT OF THE INTERNATIONAL DAY FOR AWARENESS OF FOOD LOSS AND WASTE, WE TAKE YOU ON A JOURNEY TO LEARN MORE ABOUT HOW OUR FOOD SYSTEM WORKS AND THE IMPACTS THE PANDEMIC HAS HAD ON OUR FOOD SUPPLY CHAIN.

 

Words By Natsumi Amano

 In more ways than one, the Covid-19 pandemic has challenged “the norm”. From intensive home-baking, entirely new work and study routines, to very tragically losing some of our loved ones.We all have had to come to terms with drastic changes in our daily lives, and some of these changes have had to involve our perception around food and our food systems as the pandemic has caused extraordinary stress on food supply chains, from in farm labour, processing, transport, logistics, and not to mention the pivotal shifts in demand. It is important more than ever to deepen our understanding of the bottlenecks in our food system, so as to imagine the path to the improvement of one of the most essential parts of our social structure and livelihoods. Here are just five of the ways that Covid-19 has affected our food systems, and how you can be part of the change for the better. 

1 – Worsening food insecurity

According to the latest UN estimates, as many as 132 million may go hungry in 2020, as a result of the economic recession triggered by the pandemic, unless immediate action is taken. This is due mostly to a lack of access to food. One of the hardest hit has been the countries that are significantly dependent on primary commodity exports and tourism, most notably in Africa. This is mostly due to the falling revenues as a result of the considerable reduction in demand from developed countries. Amongst those, marginalised groups, such as small-scale farmers, migrants, and informal workers who might have been hindered from working by policy changes, are even in more serious danger. 

With climbing unemployment rates, income losses, and rising food costs, it is not only developing countries that suffer from sudden crises that may put millions’ lives and livelihoods at risk. However, even within developed countries, more socio-economically vulnerable households including the elderly, chronically ill, and poorer communities have been threatened by a lack of access to food. This is largely due to the fact that Covid-19 has exposed pre-existing gaps in social protection systems amongst different demographics of people. 

“Hunger is not an issue of charity, it is an issue of justice.”- Jacques Diof

The fact we are risking a global food emergency that could have long-term effects on the food security of hundreds of millions, is a hard pill to swallow. And yet, in this especially difficult time we should come closer together to fight for greater justice and equal access to essential resources in the world. Donate if you can, to charities, or support businesses and organisations that are working to alleviate food insecurity issues. Alternatively, volunteer with your local community service (of course, while keeping safe). Remember, every little action counts, so if you ever feel powerless or hopeless, relocate that energy, to be of help to others.

Photography by Ana Shvets

2 – The increased amount of food waste

A third of all food produced globally goes to waste. This was before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and ever since, this waste crisis has only worsened, with significant consequences for world hunger and the climate. Disturbance in the food supply chain caused by the Covid-19 has resulted in a paradox of an unprecedented amount of food waste and remarkable demand on food banks, highlighting the flaws present in our food system. 

While most wasted food is thrown out at home in developed countries, almost two-thirds of the global food supply is lost elsewhere. For example, at the production and distribution of the supply chain, food items are predominantly damaged during loading and unloading, and subsequently discarded if they do not meet required standards of quality, size, shape, color, and appearance. The food service industry, including restaurants and schools, too are massive contributors to these food waste problems.

It has become particularly problematic in today’s climate, where many of the biggest buyers of farmers and food producers in the foodservice industry, are forced to reduce their productivity or shut down their operations due to Government enforced social distancing guidelines. Although farmers would like to sell their excess produce to grocery outlets, products normally sold to food service operations cannot always be sold to retailers, without incurring extra costs, as they may also have different quality expectations, or other requirements. Even if they may try to donate it to food banks, they tend to be up against an inflexible supply chain that is specialized for the end customer.

That way, farmers and food producers are faced with a massive surplus. This implies that they are faced with lower prices due to the oversupply; according to The FAO, the Food Price Index (FFPI) has dropped for four consecutive months from April, and the latest decline reflects falling values of almost all the food commodities. Despite the fact that many governments announced billions-worth farm relief packages, the majority of farmers worry that it will not be enough. Furthermore, the environmental impact of food waste is very significant. Did you know that it accounts for about eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions? According to FAO, if food waste were measured as a country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind the U.S and China.

It is exciting that there are a number of initiatives against this issue, both from industrial and individual approaches. Among industrial-wide projects, one such example is AgriMax, founded by the European Union. It is a food waste recovery project, converting crop and food processing waste into organic compounds that can be used in food packaging, food ingredients, and agricultural chemicals. Another is FruPro, a London-based online platform that diverts produce to independent retailers to eliminate losses in the food supply chain. Launched in response to the pandemic, FruPro has already saved hundreds of pallets of fresh produce from going to waste. They are also developing a mechanism to transfer the stock to food banks.

“Little by little, a little becomes a lot.” – Unknown

There are many ways to reduce your food waste production at home. For your grocery shopping, consider what food you need for your meal plan, buy local (to reduce food miles), learn to store food better, adapt habits of regular fridge check-ups, freeze soon-to-go-bad foods, become better at cooking new meals with leftovers and start home composting. Home composting involves putting your organic waste such as skins of fruits and egg shells into a bin and letting it decompose, to use it as natural fertilizer for your garden. There are also now useful apps, such as “Too Good To Go”‘, which is an initiative to reduce food waste from restaurants by offering consumers food, which would be discarded otherwise even though being perfectly fine, at half the price. Your everyday actions matter especially if you make a consistent effort over a longer period of time and become an example for people around you.

Photographies by Alex Stemplewski

3 – Concerns over essential workers’ rights in the food supply chain

The pandemic has highlighted our dependence on essential workers for the society to function well. The designated term “essential worker” applies not only to custodial staff and orderlies in hospitals on the medical frontline, but also to countless others that are in health care, utilities, education, food service, and public transportation, and the like. Millions of workers in these industries around the globe put their health and wellbeing at risk, often in very difficult circumstances. They are also disproportionately affected in comparison to those who have the privilege to work from home. However, these essential workers are often left unprotected by governments and systems that have failed to supply them with enough personal protective equipment to do their jobs. According to a study by the University of Massachusetts Amherst, approximately two-thirds of essential workers were unable to practice social distancing. 

Let us take a look at an example of workers in meat processing plants. They have become hotspots for Covid-19 transmission in various countries especially in North America. As the nature of operations is labor-intensive and overcrowded, they have been forced to shut down or operate at a reduced capacity because it is challenging for them to respect physical distancing requirements. Animal agriculture factories have been notorious for socially-unacceptable working conditions such as a lack of safety measures within the workplace and exposure to hazardous gas, chemicals, and intense noise. All of these conditions are highly likely to result in serious long-term both physical and mental health conditions. A large majority of those workers are “informal” and of immigrant backgrounds, especially in North America. They are at great danger of job-related insecurity even before the Covid-19 outbreak. That is to say that we as a society are not doing enough to protect the very essential workers.

On a side note, disruptions of meat supply chains have led to a shortage of animal products’ supply, and it seems that more and more consumers are demanding plant-based meat alternatives. Because the meat substitutes are generated with less dependence on labour and the processing is highly automated, workers in the plant-based food industry have not suffered from the disruption as much as the conventional animal agriculture industry, which we discuss more next.

“Let’s put “kind” into “humankind”.” – John Mark Green

Here is what you can do to put your care for essential workers into action. Be concerned for the safety of workers. When you buy food from supermarkets/restaurants, contact them by phone, email, social media or any other means, to ask specific questions about how the workers are protected; if they are provided with personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves, for example. If you find out that they are not doing enough to safeguard workers’ safety, our instinct may be to completely boycott them by not buying anything from them. However, it is important to keep in mind that those who are unfairly treated are most likely to be hit the hardest by the reduced revenue. With that being said, use your voice to demand those businesses to change and inform others to do the same because we as consumers have the power to impact businesses’ decision-making on how they operate.

4 – The exponential growth of plant-based food market

Most of us already know that current industrial animal farming is far from sustainable, both from environmental and animal welfare standpoints. Agriculture and meat production are significant contributors of greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, as well as water and air pollution; animals are often treated as nothing but a commodity, completely disregarding animal rights and welfare. These concerns are well-reflected in the soaring popularity of plant-based foods. According to the 2019 report, the plant-based protein market is expected to reach $14.32 billion by 2025. The growth of this market is underlyingly attributed to the increasing awareness of the health & wellness market among consumers with the belief that plant-based foods are more nutritionally beneficial, including the presence of naturally occurring fibers, anti-inflammatory micronutrients, antioxidants, lower calorie counts, and so on. On top of that, the outbreak of Covid-19 has accelerated the advancement of the plant-based food market. Medical studies show that coronavirus disease has a considerable impact on people with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, and it is scientifically-proven that the plant protein-based diet can help reduce the effects of the virus on at-risk people. According to surveys from The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation in the U.S, which involved a thousand adults in May 2020, almost a quarter said that they are eating more plant-based proteins since the outbreak hit.

Photography by Ash Valiente

 Though it all sounds great; you can reduce your health risk and environmental concerns by replacing animal proteins with plant-sourced proteins, one of the biggest concerns when it comes to the shift of preference to plant-based alternatives is that it dwindles the existing animal farming industry. As a matter of fact, one of the major dairy producers in the U.S filed for bankruptcy in 2019. The job loss for those who are in this industry is likely to happen in the next decade. Nevertheless, market shifts are inevitable as the society changes, just like video streaming service took over the Videotape and disc rental industry. One opportunity rises, one opportunity falls unless the economic pie is the same in size. That tends to form the nature of our economic system. However, there is a window of opportunity for job creation by shifting towards a more sustainable world, namely by a transition from meat-heavy diets to more plant-based diets. A recent study suggests that decarbonisation, or a transition to a net-zero emission economy, would create 22.5 million jobs in Latin America and the Caribbean by 2030 with higher levels of employment in low carbon agriculture, plant-based food production, and ecotourism. Despite that, the scenario presented in this study is not a prediction of the impact of current trends, the potential impact of structural changes to decarbonisation exhibit viability that shifts to a sustainable world can be done with as little societal and economic damages as possible.

“The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.” – Paulo Coelho

For making your eating habits more eco-friendly, it goes without saying that the best thing you can do is to reduce your animal consumption, maybe by trying out Meat Free Monday. You do not have to go vegan overnight, but make your way to a more sustainable diet, slowly but surely by starting to reduce your meats and dairy products on a daily basis. Try out meat substitutes. Nowadays, you can get almost anything as a plant-based alternative, including burger patties, fried chickens, yogurt and icecreams. There are so many companies out there who produce those; Beyond Food, Impossible Food, Oatly, to name a few. They are not only getting better, but also accessible and better by the day. It also may be of interest to switch to buying animal products from transparent farmers who are making efforts to minimize the environmental impacts and better the treatments of animals.

Photography by Norman Mortenson

5 – The upward trend of delivery and takeout

Covid-19 has led to a drastic shift in consumer demand away from restaurants and other food services to “at-home food consumption”, which has required structural changes in the way food supply chains operate. Since the lockdown measures are implemented, food service businesses, especially family-run, small and local restaurants, cafes, and bars have struggled to make ends meet worldwide. Depending on the countries/regions, some Governments have announced relief funds and VAT tax reduction to support the food-service industry. However, in the U.S, for example, roughly 16,000 restaurants had already permanently closed by late July 2020. Among those who managed to survive, many of them have reopened after they became able to follow social distancing guides and begin opening other channels of revenue such as delivery and takeout. You have probably seen these trends on social media intended to support local businesses: #TakeoutTuesday and #TakeoutTakeover. According to McKinsey’s recent consumer sentiment survey, approximately thirty-five to fifty-five percent of existing consumers across Europe intend to continue using delivery more in the future. 

 

Photographies by Norman Mortenson

While delivery and takeout are what seems essential for those businesses to get through this difficult time, it comes at the expense of environmental degradation from the use of single-use plastic food containers. Before the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, both public and private sectors were progressing on the less frequent use of single-use plastic. However, the upsurge in single-use plastic hinders the fight against plastic pollution, which, according to a report from the World Wildlife Fund, is projected to increase by forty percent in the next decade. To ensure customers’ safety and hygiene, major food chains, and other food-service businesses have prohibited customers from bringing in their own containers. In the light of the pandemic, the plastic industry attempts to persuade us into the idea that reusables are dangerous and that single-use plastic can keep us safe. One of the biggest challenges using food containers is that once they are covered in greases and other deposits that are hard to rinse off, they are so hardly recognised as recyclables, that the majority of them ends up in the ocean. On the contrary, reuse service system companies like Go Box, which provide reusable takeout packaging for vendors and customers are hitting the nail on the head. Therefore, there is a sizable market opportunity in catalyzing the existing food delivery and takeout system more eco-friendly by establishing zero waste options and developing returnable or reusable systems.

 

“Kindness begins with the understanding that we all struggle.” – Charles Glassman

It is important to support local restaurants and small businesses. Ordering a take-out if they are open, and pre-buying vouchers are awesome ideas! Why don’t you buy gift cards for your loved ones in advance? By all means, keep the safety of yourself and others at utmost priority in any situation. Ask delivery people to leave food on your doorstep, and not hand it off to you, for example. To reduce your environmental footprint, while many businesses disallow customers to bring in their reusable food containers at this point in time, you can at least make it clear that you do not need the extra supplies like utensils in the “notes” section of your order. 

Conclusively, significant homework is required in today’s society and from individual perspectives to redeem our food system, not just to improve government policy and regulation, but also to encourage business in the food industry to build a sustainable food system. The majority of efforts to reduce the impacts of Covid-19 are focused on lockdown measures, treatment, and vaccine development. Now is also the perfect time to strengthen biosecurity measures in the global food system to help prevent emerging disease and future pandemics as epidemiologists and ecologists say that the rate at which diseases jump from animals to humans is increasing. Let us take actions not just to keep ourselves safe but also to keep/make the planet a safe place for future generations to live in!