Covid-19 and agriculture: the coming contradictory hunger pandemic
To conceptualize agriculture as a way of catering to the needs of the many, while protecting what is left of nature, will be a major task for all future politics.
On 24 March 2020, the Chair of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), Thanawat Tiensin, addressed governments with an urgent warning. The state of food security and nutrition had already been alarming before the outbreak of COVID-19, but he expected the rising numbers of insufficiently nourished people to be aggravated as a result of the pandemic, “with the poor – notably the urban poor – people living in remote areas, migrant and informal sector workers, people in humanitarian crises and conflict areas, and other vulnerable groups likely to face the worst consequences”. Tiensin recalled that after the financial crisis of 2008, the economic downturn had morphed into a full-blown food crisis. Therefore, he warned that “we must avoid this from happening again, for the sake of our peoples and our planet.”
A month later, unfortunately, the Corona pandemic is not only expanding from a health crisis into global recession; the political instruments put in place to deal with Covid-19 are also on their way to causing a hunger pandemic as David Beasley, Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme calls it. Yet, while the economic downturn is easily described in terms of negative growth and a high number of job-losses, the food crisis has so far received less attention because its characteristics are confusingly contradictory. This unfolding food crisis affects poor consumers in the form of a crisis of access to food. However, the pandemic first and foremost reveals a crisis of planning and production in the agricultural process.
This is observable in the OECD, where supermarkets have been struggling to meet the high demand and have rationed key products such as vegetables, milk and pasta, while, at the same time, farmers in many places are unable to market their produce, and have been forced to destroy a year’s harvest of vegetables or dump millions of liters of milk because the closure of restaurants, school serveries and public events has curbed demand and caused prices to plummet. In many countries of the global South, the crisis of agricultural planning and production will have shocking effects over the coming weeks.
A contradictory landscape of food provision
Covid-19 affects agriculture everywhere, but in very different ways, depending on the location. Last week, I talked to a friend of mine who works in an ecological horticulture business in Germany. Asked whether she still goes to work during the pandemic, she complained that actually never had work been as hard as during recent weeks, because the demand for her company’s vegetables went through the roof after the announcement of the lockdown.
Were she to work for an equivalent business in India, she would most likely have a very different experience, because much of the vegetable supply in Delhi, for instance, is distributed on markets and by street vendors, a practice that was declared illegal during the lockdown. Many of these vendors were beaten and abused by the police who have been brutally raiding informal markets over the last few weeks.
Within Europe, the contrasts are no less striking. In western-European states like Germany, the UK and Austria, governments made a number of exemptions from their otherwise strict border closures in order to fly in tens of thousands of eastern Europeans for harvesting. In Germany, the “asparagus question” was on the front pages of tabloids, leading politicians to loosen the health rules for seasonal workers. They are now flown in in order to harvest asparagus in what is described as “quarantine-like accommodation”, that is they are not allowed to leave the farm premises while living in the same mass accommodation as last year, which is however only half-occupied for the first 14 days. They risk their health for a job that Germans do not like to carry out, because the wages are still higher there than what they could earn back at home. Yet, at the same time, in Bulgaria there is a severe shortage in agricultural labour, threatening to undermine the domestic harvesting season and provoking panic among Bulgarian farmers who predict a shortage in supply of vegetables as its effect.
The critics of these practices are right that the opening of borders without proper social protection serve first and foremost the interest of employers without systematically enhancing food security. But even without the transnational dimension, economies present a strikingly uneven picture. While, for instance, US food banks handle record demand – a result of job-losses for many workers who cannot afford to pay for their daily needs any longer – farmers are dumping fresh milk and plowing vegetables back into the fields as the shutdown of the food service industry has wrecked their supply chains. While most of their products are usually bought by restaurant chains and delivered ‘just in time’, they have not found channels for distributing their supply during the current crisis, despite the great increase in demand which left many supermarkets unable to stock for the steep increase in customers (UK supermarkets experienced a record month in March with extra £1.9bn in turnover).
A crisis of planning
In the US particularly, there was no intervening institution, and no expertise on how to quickly direct the produce to places that needed it, hence leading to large amounts of food being wasted despite an increase in demand. Will this only be a short-term effect before markets readjust? The Northern Irish website Farming Life predicts that, reassuring its farming readership with a quote from the Genesis: “As long as the earth remains, there will be planting and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night.”
In the US particularly, there was no intervening institution, and no expertise on how to quickly direct the produce to places that needed it.
This may well be true, but will the harvest be sold, and – more importantly – eaten, and by whom? The situation is severe, as could be seen at a press conference of Chinese Agriculture Minister Han Changfu on 19 April 2020. He reported that the corona virus had disrupted China’s supply chains and made it difficult for many industries to find enough workers, which has already delayed poultry and pig production in the world’s top meats market. His warning comes in a time of struggling domestic supply chains which have led many national governments to upend trade relations: some countries do not only restrict the export of medical material but also of grains in order to protect the domestic market, a move that could prove enormously costly in a highly globalized agricultural and food provision system. The ILO therefore predicts that “risks of food insecurity are emerging due to containment measures, including border closures”.
The problem of the current food crisis is thus mainly one of planning: “agriculture officials”, according to the Guardian, “insist that the supply itself is not in question, but matching that supply with demand and getting it to where it’s needed most is a new and urgent problem.“ However, this situation is enormously volatile and a crisis of distribution could finally also end up in a crisis of supply, foreclosing the possibility of government coordination that is now still on the table. When, for instance, the lack of adequate channeling of produce leads to an exodus of farm workers who can no longer be paid by farms, it will take a long time to re-establish these working processes, leading to potentially millions of hectares of rotting crops in a situation of dire need.
A crisis of production
While these vegetables are rotting as an effect of the lockdown, increasing numbers of people in the global South have no access to food. The most horrible visible effects so far have been seen in India and other South Asian countries, where seasonal migrant workers have been let go without any social protection, producing millions of domestic migrants who leave the cities in order to make ends meet in the villages they had left for a better income in the cities. Yet, what awaits them in these villages is often a high debt burden enforced by local landlords, which transforms them into fully-dependent workers who are only fed a minimum while the rest of their “wage” goes into debt installments.
These bondage relations are often the direct results of the way agriculture has been restructured since the Green Revolution all across South and Southeast Asia. The new “magic” seeds introduced from the 1960s heightened the output significantly while requiring a number of expensive inputs such as fertilizers and complex irrigation techniques. This led to an industrialization of rural economies which were transformed during the last 50 years from parcellated, family-driven small-holder economies into highly specialized monocultures controlled by a handful of companies with access to capital. The results of these Green Revolution policies all across Asia were higher yields and generally a more productive output, that has more overall calories, and hence more food security in “normal times”. Yet, in times of a crisis like this one, the contradictions of the Green Revolution double down on the marginalized. While life had been difficult for many rural communities before the Green Revolution, the land grabbing, financialization and especially the decline of biodiversity that occurred in its wake have made these food systems extremely volatile because entire economies depend on single varieties and sometimes even single companies whose business decisions are tied to the stock market value of crops rather than consumption needs and equitable food provision.
While earlier, many rural people across South and Southeast Asia worked day-jobs for a surplus, they usually maintained self-sufficient gardens and planted crops for their families on small fields. In the course of the mechanization and financialization of agriculture, they typically sold these pieces of land to agricultural companies or local landlords for whom they have been working since, if they haven’t moved to cities. While access to food used to be more exhausting compared to the lifestyles many of these urban poor are leading now, the current crisis shows that the absence of these local food-systems puts millions of the weakest at risk once governments interrupt access to the “informal economy” where they usually consume.
The closure of peasant markets has figured as a huge problem: where countries have outlawed informal markets and the selling of goods by street vendors, this troubled food security for many marginalized and poor households, and upended sources of income for vegetable growers and sellers while big businesses such as supermarket chains remain operational. As a result, they are forced to interact with the more expensive, highly standardized chain of production and delivery which is the formal food market. Even if they had the resources to do so, however, the lack of distributional foresight and planning would be likely to leave these former peasants wanting.
Will Covid-19 change agriculture for the better?
While national governments have reacted to potential food shortages by protecting national markets (much like they reacted to the virus itself) by shutting borders and stopping the export of significant goods, a more systematic form of coordination to counteract the looming food crisis is so far missing. This could be a potential job for the FAO, but with the current budget and lack of authority, there is little the organization is in the position to do.
In full awareness of its own weakness, Thanawat Tiensin of the FAO has therefore suggested that “[t]he current situation could represent an opportunity to highlight the importance of strengthening government management of food markets, protecting marginalized populations who have less power and resources to adapt to such an unpredictable crisis, and difficulty accessing nutritious foods already.” And in fact, the crisis has already shown that there is agency for governments, and that local and national decision-making is crucial: In France and Romania, for instance, peasant organizations have succeeded in opposing the closure of famers’ markets, leading to government guidelines which keep these important distributional hubs open while tightening security procedures.
Beyond the immediate
But beyond immediate relief, the looming food crisis shows two fundamental weaknesses of our current globalized and heavily marketized agricultural system for its function of food provision: Firstly, a severe lack of contingency planning with regard to food distribution, leading to paradoxical outcomes such as a lack of stock in retail, and the parallel destruction of produce on farms without access to channels of distribution. And secondly, on a more essential level, the crisis also shows the pathology of a food system with its strong concentration of the means of agricultural production, leaving the already marginalized without any alternative sources of nutrition once this system is hit by a crisis.
Researchers who have anticipated a crisis like this have long argued for a deglobalization of food markets, that is “making the domestic market again the center of gravity of the economy rather than the global market”. But even on a mainly national food market, the problems would not simply disappear. Rather, the core issue will be to “ensure that small-scale food producers maintain their capacity to produce and provide adequate food, for example through the support to agroecological production, the fostering of short local circuits and supply chains and […] adequate functioning of local food.” Such a localization of food systems should ideally go hand in hand with a more centralized planning, both nationally and internationally. Planning should be macro and production micro. Currently, we are seeing the evolving result of the opposite.
Planning should be macro and production micro. Currently, we are seeing the evolving result of the opposite.
Fundamentally, the outbreak of Covid-19 has been directly related to the destructive ways of agricultural production, especially factory farming and the destruction of spaces for wildlife. Animals are increasingly adapting to our civilization which takes away their space. However, we humans seem to be less flexible in adapting to wildlife whose habitat we are increasingly entering and destroying. To conceptualize agriculture as a way of catering to the needs of the many, while protecting what is left of nature, will be a major task for all future politics, a task for which we seem worryingly underprepared.
Research on this article was funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Framework for Research and Innovation (ERC Consolidator Grant Agreement #724451 - PI: Dr. Inanna Hamati-Ataya).
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