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The Covid-19 pandemic has forced a rethinking of many of the things that we previously took for granted.
Food is one such example. On the one hand, we can look at our experience in New Zealand and conclude that our supermarket food system coped relatively well. Sure, our food shopping experience changed to meet health and public safety requirements, but there were no widespread food shortages. Our uniform and centralised food system that favours supermarkets and their supply chains proved sufficient in this case.
However, smaller food retailers, specialty shops and farmers markets had more difficulty with compliance measures designed to reduce public health risks and many were deemed non-essential. Local producers lost access to markets for their products usually provided by local restaurants and cafes. Small producers also lost access to the food processing facilities, cold storage and distribution networks upon which their businesses depend. Across the country, food box deliveries of local food were oversubscribed, yet many producers without the capacity or experience struggled with rolling out online ordering systems. While our industrialised, supermarket food chains went into overdrive, aspects of our diverse and localised food system were sidelined.
Although our supermarkets coped in this crisis, Covid-19 also shines a spotlight on the risks of relying upon a single and unequal globalised food system. The system is fragile as it depends upon access to certain infrastructure and public goods while undervaluing labour and the environment.
These observations are not unique to New Zealand. Globally, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems expressed concern about the increased consolidation and dependence on this system, where removing one piece can potentially cause the whole supply chain to grind to a halt. The closure of borders and restricted access to migrant labour to pick and process New Zealand’s fresh produce is one such example. Increasingly specialised production systems that are dependent on certain climatic conditions equally face high levels of vulnerability in the face of climate change.
So, what does this mean for the future of our food systems? What lessons might we take from our Covid-19 experience that might contribute to a reimagining of our food systems and provide more space for alternatives to this fragility? How might we develop a new narrative so that a ‘‘successful’’ food system is one that supports local livelihoods, environmental wellbeing and ensures that we are well fed?
One thing the uneven response to the global pandemic has demonstrated is the importance of a collective response, a shared responsibility to ‘‘be kind’’ and to care for each other.
The pandemic crisis has offered a glimpse of these collective responses in the context of food. There has been renewed interest in re-localisation of food through, for example, Community Supported Agriculture schemes. These schemes share the risks and uncertainties of agriculture between producers and consumers to create a more resilient system based on a commitment by both parties to high quality, nutritious local food and farmer wellbeing.
Pre-existing interest and support for activities such as regenerative agriculture also represent the potential to expand notions of care in food production. We can care for the soil, the land, and the environment but also for farmer wellbeing by extending notions of value beyond productivity to include broader community values.
Efforts to make food systems more accessible and transparent might also reflect notions of care. The Open Food Network in Australia is a social enterprise that uses an open-source platform to democratise access to tools, infrastructure and markets to generate new, ethical supply chains. Making online tools accessible provides opportunities for producers to sell easily online or for wholesalers to manage buying groups, and supply through networks of local food hubs and shops. Communities can bring together producers to create a virtual farmers market, building a resilient local food economy that is more accessible for all.
These examples represent an emerging collective responsibility for all components of the food system implicitly based on aspects of care. The diversity they provide in times of stability or crisis is essential. Incorporating care for essential workers, farmers, the land, the environment, and for each other might provide the basis for a new narrative of food systems. It might shift how we value food along more careful lines.
- Sean Connelly is a senior lecturer in the University of Otago School of Geography. Madison Seymour is a master of arts candidate in the University of Otago School of Geography.