Four ways COVID-19 will change food systems and food security


It’s too early for precise answers to questions about the coronavirus pandemic’s long-term impacts on the ways food is produced, processed, distributed, eaten, recycled and appreciated.

But my experience managing food policy issues in Toronto for one of the world’s leading city-based public health departments gives me some searching questions that can help us prepare for possible outcomes. These open questions provide a robust framework that can support an early report-out now. My commitment to readers is to update and fill-in this outline as events make trends clearer.

There’s a simple reason why no-one can predict specifics of the long-term food impacts of the coronavirus crisis yet.

Food system outcomes will depend almost entirely on whether the political, health and media powers-that-be continue to control, limit and focus health communications around COVID-19 — as if it’s strictly a matter of a virus that should only be managed by social distancing to reduce contagion. If people stay with this disease prevention script — which is what “flattening the curve” is about — we may never proceed to a flat-out engagement with health promotion, supposedly the central mission of public health.

However, if people come to a diagnosis that this particular virus arises from a set of agroecological system conditions that will lead to continued outbreaks and disruptions, or if the diagnosis identifies how the infection’s harm is amplified and worsened by factors such as air pollution, then we may start the work of treating the disease.

There’s a bit of a parallel between the way an epidemic can affect a person and the way an epidemic can affect a system, such as a food system.

At the individual level, the contagious disease may be repulsed by an individual’s powerful immune system, or the disease can be managed because of the patient’s excellent health. But if the person has compromised personal health by smoking or a poor diet, or if the patient has another underlying condition, such as diabetes, they may die from the virus.

The same dynamic tension is true of society. If people generally have a healthy balance of respecting their rights and responsibilities as a dynamic duo, if they recognize responsibilities to others, if there are low levels of inequality and chronic disease, the society will respond well to the shock of an epidemic. But if there are underlying stressors that compromise social integrity, if there is a polarization between haves and have-nots, if people who are different are treated as others, if there is inadequate access to basic necessities of life, if there are runaway levels of chronic disease, then society or the food system will have a hard time of it.

The resilience of society and food systems depends on both stressors and shocks, and factors leading to stress may indeed have to be changed as soon as the pandemic is over. I believe the drivers of food system change will come from successes or failures of ways of coping with both stressors and shock.


TO BE OR NOT TO BE?

The multi-trillion-dollar costs of recovering from the pandemic guarantee that the disease aftermath will become a historic moment — offering “to be or not to be” choices to the peoples of the world. It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to use the same amount of money to either fund a transformative health-promoting economy, environment, and society …. or one dependent on environmental pollution and social inequality.

Whatever happens, we can be prepared for food impacts of the coronavirus pandemic by asking the following four questions:

  1. What will the likely impacts be on individual behaviours affecting food?
  2. What will the likely impacts be on changes in collective behaviour and popular culture affecting food?
  3. What will the likely impacts be on institutional changes affecting food?
  4. What will the likely impacts be on infrastructures and public policies affecting food?


Personal Behaviour

Over my 75 years of eating food and 25 years working on good-food-for-all movements, I’ve never seen personal behaviour changes at the pace or on the scale we’ve witnessed in recent weeks.

Only the anti-tobacco campaign of the 1980s and ’90s had this much impact on personal health habits. That took two decades to work its way through to policy and structural change. We have only started at this new round of behavioural change.

In the course of weeks, many of us have changed our personal food-related behaviours in ways that can have enduring impacts.

At the very least, food safety, food preparation, and food shopping practices will change profoundly and permanently.

I’m washing my hands more often and more carefully than ever before. Until now, I always washed my hands before preparing food. But I wasn’t as fussy as I needed to be about disinfecting the surface area I was working on or the dining table.

Until this week, I wasn’t even conscious that I scratched my face and head 23 times an hour — thereby creating a highway for flu germs to travel from my hand to the area of my nose and into my lungs, and from a few inches from my nose back to my hands as I prepared and ate my food.

I scratch my head at how we didn’t understand what was going on when we scratched our heads.

If I and others keep up our new sanitary habits in the future, their cumulative impacts on food and health will be significant.

The room for improvement is mind-bending, as typical statistics indicate. Millions of lives and billions of dollars in medical spending and lost workdays could be spared if more people practiced simple and low-cost sanitary practices. A fraction of one percent of the financial savings from preventing food-borne illnesses could easily fund a citizen- and expert-based food policy council for every local government around the world, which could have enormous benefits for democratizing food policies, as this resource guide and this book suggest.

Many food activists, believing that policy and structural changes are the need of the hour, pooh-pooh the efforts put into changing individual food-related behaviours. But it’s not an either-or matter. It’s a both-and matter, as it has always been with sanitary reform.

Sanitary reform was a cornerstone issue of emerging public health movements during the late-1800s. These transformative movements, often in alliance with woman’s suffrage movements, transformed food and water infrastructure in a generation — think water utilities and garbage departments, and food premises inspection — in many areas around the world.

That link between personal and policy reform can be re-established in the green infrastructure aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Collective Behaviour and Food Culture

I’ve always thought of myself as being comfortable alone. I happily met countless deadlines by spending long days alone with my books, notepads, computer, and thoughts.

Now I realize that I only thought I was alone all that long. In reality, my days alone included countless errands and excuses that required bumping into neighbours, acquaintances, and shopkeepers and lots of time with family.

It didn’t take long into social distancing before I started to go stir-crazy and recall the famous lines of John Donne’s meditation of the 1600s:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

… any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Humans are social animals, let it never be forgotten. And may that knowledge never be suppressed by neoliberal fantasies that individual “economic man” and his rational calculus should form the basis of public policy — or that social distancing is a foundation of healthy public policy.

Social distancing is something we do because we appreciate and honor community needs over personal convenience. Distancing is not the norm of the human condition. It is an occasion to recall that the sociability and conviviality of food are not just instrumental — essential to nutrition. They are existential, part of what it means to be human.

A very hopeful sign of the strength and power of such human solidarity is the outbreak of “caremonger” organizations across Canada — a sure sign that informal “social capital” and informal cooperation are alive and well, protecting us against the disintegrating and entropic energy of neo-liberalism. The state does not have or need a monopoly over non-commercial collaboration among neighbours and friends. Civil society and civic virtue, making full use of social media, can become major platforms for the transformation of everyday life.

There’s a reason why such words as companion and company (as in, keep me company or in the company of friends) come to us via the Latin for “with” and “bread,” why breaking bread is the way to convert an acquaintance into a friend, and why every major occasion of life, from baptism to memorials, is celebrated by eating together.

Food is social. We did not evolve to eat alone, at desks, in a car, in front of a screen. We evolved to eat in social situations with other people.

A week after social distancing was adopted in British Columbia, Trevor Hancock, a former Medical Officer of Health from Toronto Public Health’s glory days, wrote a newspaper column on new research revealing that the health of ordinary people actually improved during the darkest days of the 1930s Depression — when poverty pushed people to spend more time on simple pleasures with other people.

Perhaps Depression-style efforts to support one another to survive tough times caused by the coronavirus pandemic will rekindle these human instincts and reverse the social distancing promoted by neoliberalism as a foundation stone of public policy.

The public health strategy called Social Determinants of Health needs to be reaffirmed once the coronavirus pandemic is over. If this happens, the social side of eating — now recognized in Brazil’s and Canada’s food guides — will become an anchor of healthy food policy and practice. (See my comments on the guides here and here and here.)


Institutional Changes

With breathtaking rapidity, governments of all political stripes, in almost all countries across the world, have responded to deep and fundamental flaws in the basic architecture of social security policies.

Oddly enough, many governments now in power were elected on anti-government agendas. Notwithstanding this, almost all of them have recognized that government is the first and last resort during a disruptive health emergency.

Where else are people to find support for the costs of food and rent?

Conventional social security practices have suddenly been exposed as obsolete for a number of reasons. Conventional social security programs take weeks before payouts are made. More important, almost all social security benefits are linked to people in permanent jobs — jobs that are no longer the norm for young people, small and independent entrepreneurs, members of racialized minorities, the unemployed, people with disabilities, and others reliant for their incomes on participation in the “precariat.”

It is clear now that social security programs need to transition from being “social safety nets” to become trampolines that allow people to bounce back from adversity. To accomplish this, they need to overcome the divisiveness that old-style social security programs imbedded.

The essence of social security programs of the last 75 years is that they divided people into bureaucratic categories. Some people got workers compensation for workplace accidents, some people got unemployment insurance, certain people got disability allowances, certain people got welfare, certain people got corporate welfare, certain people got veterans’ benefits, certain people got food stamps, certain people got free school lunches, certain people got fringe benefits at work, and so on.

Each group fought for its benefits and questioned the benefits that other groups got — the old game of divide and conquer.

These divisions need to be replaced by a universal program based on universal needs, which will cover many of its costs just by dispensing with the unproductive bureaucratic and administrative costs of today’s obsolete systems.

Many of the aid and recovery programs being developed in the heat of the moment today point in this direction. In the clear light of day after the pandemic, the logic of universal programs will have a chance to prevail.

This will have a breathtaking impact on food security.

It is well-known that today’s minimum wages, unemployment insurance, social assistance, and welfare programs leave as many as one person in eight throughout wealthy communities of North America without enough money to buy adequate amounts of safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food.

When a universal program based on a scientific assessment of the cost of living becomes the norm, this food insecurity will disappear virtually overnight — for the simple reason that food security in North America has persisted despite the ready availability of abundant food. Lack of money was the only barrier to food access, and when that barrier is removed, food insecurity will vanish.

Members of these groups have not seen themselves as having much in common. Now they realize they have precarity and insecurity in common. They are also coming to recognize that they are no longer minorities, but a new majority.

It is safe to say that the obsolete institutionalized means of providing social security will not survive for very long once the pandemic is over and the balance sheets drawn on institutions lacking resilience, timeliness, and accountability to the people most in need of their services.

As many reports have indicated (including this is one), the question to ask is not how much does it cost to end food poverty, but how much money does it save to end poverty.

We may now be ready for this new discussion and a fundamental rearrangement of institutions associated with it. (For a persuasive explanation of the value of Universal Basic Income, listen to veteran Conservative leader Hugh Segal.)

In the absence of such institutional reform, here’s a report on the level of food insecurity experienced in Canada.


Policy and Structural Change

With few notable exceptions, governments around the world have given carriage of public policy around the coronavirus to health and medical experts. They are calling the shots not just for hospital policy or contagion policy. Their health decisions drive policy in almost every nook and cranny of society.

In effect, a longstanding principle of public health reformers — Health in All Policies — has been adopted. ( See here and here and here, not to mention my own material here and here for info on HiAP.)

To grasp how significant this is, imagine that, at this moment, some 500,000 people around the world suffered from a serious diet-related chronic disease or syndrome such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease or cancer. No need to imagine. It’s true. The same number of people who have suffered from coronavirus. Can you imagine health and medical officials being given the reins of power to tell people how to act to prevent highly-preventable diet-related chronic diseases and syndromes?

A contagious disease is what’s given the health people their power, not just illness or risk to the well-being of the population-at-large. As long as diseases were chronic, the order of things was that businesses and arms of government dealing with business issues acted first, and let health professions deal with the damage. That’s because the normal state of affairs is Business in All Policies!

Here’s the gist of what Health in All Policies means. Health is much broader than medical care. A government department of health that only deals with medical care and cures is neglecting all the factors that go into promoting health and preventing illness.

A moment’s reflection on food-related matters suggests the range of food-related factors that cause disease.

Take a few examples.

We have a long-distance food system (an average food calorie travels about 2000 miles) which inevitably requires a lot of transportation. The truck transportation causes air pollution, a leading cause of premature death globally. A transportation-intensive food system inevitably leads to more traffic accidents. So a government department of health that practices Health in All Policies will look at ways of improving health results by rethinking transportation policy.

Apply this logic to water pollution, a leading cause of which is the run-off from farm chemicals. Health in All Policies means applying a health lens to toxic chemicals in agriculture.

The same logic could apply to government purchasing decisions. How would Health in All Policies see buying food for hospitals, schools, old age homes and other public institutions from global corporations that source food from wherever it’s cheapest around the world, and prepare it in ways that compromise nutrients needed in a meal? Doesn’t public purchasing of local and sustainable food, which purchases food from the people who pay taxes for the food, make sense?

Likewise, wouldn’t it make sense, from a health promotion standpoint, to identify farmers markets as essential services?

Why are the only food stores entitled to remain open be supermarkets with supply chains that stretch around the world in search of low prices, no matter the cost to health and the environment?

The need to localize food and energy systems is bound to rise to the top of the to-do list once the dust and germs from Covid-19 settle.

I think it’s also going to become very clear in the hindsight from Covid-19 that food workers generally need to be accorded the respect and protection of other people called to be frontline workers during emergencies.

One suggested policy follows from the practice of many progressive employers in providing frontline food workers with an additional two dollars an hour in “hazard pay” during the coronavirus pandemic. To reframe that in a more positive way, food-related work should be designated as a health promotion industry, in which workers are required to take a free public health course on advanced food safety practices. Upon passing an examination showing they know their stuff, they should be entitled to a two-dollar hourly bonus rewarding them for being practitioners as well as models and coaches of high-level food safety practices. (I have been making the case that food should be designated as a health-promoting sector for some time, as seen here.)

If Health in All Policies is applied in times of health as well as infectious disease, these are the kinds of food-related changes that would be high on a government to-do list.

Are health officials up to this kind of thinking?

We don’t know yet. It could be that health officials have the same approach to food in society as they have to food in hospitals — a gruesome prospect. But hospitals didn’t get to have the food they are notorious for without medical professionals who placed food close to the bottom of their priorities.

It is worrisome that few medical or public health officials have drawn attention to the intensive agricultural practices that are arguably responsible for runaway diseases among animals brought into close contact with humans — creating the basis for the spread of previously-unknown viruses. This is a topic worthy of serious research (see here and here and here).

This reality transforms the discussion on the importance of local food in the global north. It does far more than provide fresh food and boost local agriculture. By boosting urban and peri-urban agriculture we prevent the kind of widespread habitat destruction in the Global South by aggressive industrial agriculture that creates breeding grounds for new species of viral diseases — a frightening prospect of what happens if we don’t block the spread of industrial agriculture. (See some of this breaking research here and here.)

Which is only to say, it’s not just disease or anxiety that is in the air. Possibilities are in the air. We need to counter contagious diseases with the contagion of positive alternatives.

The coronavirus pandemic is a difficult ordeal we are going through. But it’s an ill wind that blows no good, and the time is ripe for constructive and solutionary energies.


— Wayne Roberts


Wayne Roberts blogs regularly on medium.com. He also produces a free newsletter for food activists and actionists. See past issues and sign up for new ones at http://bit.ly/willworkforfoodpolicy

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