COVID-19 has changed daily realities in nearly every corner of the world. But for millions of people, fears about access to food have made the crisis even worse. Recently the UN warned of disruption to food supplies and further loss of incomes and livelihoods – up to 1.6 billion workers affected in the formal economy alone. Food banks and community organisations are doing their best to help those in immediate need. But as the pandemic collides with inequality and climate emergency, it’s clear we need major changes in our approach to food and agriculture. 

Ecological Farmer in Kenya © Cheryl-Samantha Owen / Greenpeace
Farmers in Kenya are effectively applying ecological farming practices that are increasing their ability to build resilience to and cope with climate change.

The food system was broken long before coronavirus came along. The current crisis has exposed the fault-lines and renewed urgency to tackle root causes. This means asking hard questions and digging deeper for solutions. How is it that 30% of food is wasted globally and unhealthy food is fuelling obesity and diabetes, while 820 million people don’t have enough to eat? Why are millions being “forced to choose between hunger or COVID-19”? 

The industrial and commodity-based food system has failed to adequately feed many people in this world. This isn’t due to a lack of food but to the conditions of extreme inequality, and the wrong type of food being produced, traded or promoted by powerful corporate interests that control the food and agriculture sectors. COVID-19 has once again shown us just how risky it is to let corporations be in charge of feeding people. 

Ecological Produce at Farmers Market in Paris. © Peter Caton / Greenpeace
Shopping at Raspail Market in central Paris. Raspail is one of the largest ecological markets in Paris. © Peter Caton / Greenpeace

Changing our food system

An alternative vision is gaining momentum — of a more collaborative, socially just and ecological food system, where communities have control and power over how it’s shaped. As public money goes into economic recovery packages, some governments and organisations are pushing for systemic changes, so that communities can build back with greater resilience, better able to cope with future shocks. 

A resilient food system is an ecological food system, designed to help people and the environment rather than make profits for multinational corporations. It supports food justice — with “communities exercising their right to grow, sell, and eat healthy food” and acknowledging differences such as class, ethnicity, and gender in shaping solutions to meet their food needs. In some places, this transition has already begun. 

Our right to food

We need a system that protects human rights, such as access to food and fair treatment and recognition for workers, and respects the ecological boundaries we depend on. It’s called food sovereignty, and we all — local and national governments, international agencies and cities — must support the shift towards a sustainable food system that can support us during the COVID crisis and beyond.

Organic Rice Art at Ratchaburi in Thailand. © Greenpeace / Athit Perawongmetha
Samnieng Huadlim, a 62 year old Thai farmer holds rice stalks harvested at Greenpeace’s “Rice Art” field in Ratchaburi province, Bangkok, Thailand. © Greenpeace / Athit Perawongmetha

To start, here’s some of the things we should change in our current food system:

  1. Food is a common good. Food should be considered an essential common good, not just another commodity, with principles like food sovereignty a part of all crisis recovery packages. The transition to ecological food systems, away from industrial agriculture, is already happening in some parts of the planet — now it must be funded, amplified and mainstreamed.
  2. All levels of government have a role. Countries and cities need to be proactive in making sure that people have access to food so no-one is left behind. For example, Victoria, Canada has assigned parks staff to start growing food for residents. Let’s encourage city networks, like Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, CityFood and C40, to make access to nutritious food better for all. 
  3. Food justice. Food insecurity is linked to inequality, not lack of production. It’s a question of justice. To ensure the right to healthy food for all, we need to adopt social measures like universal basic income to help tackle poverty and redistribute wealth. 
  4. Essential workers are valued and compensated. To strengthen our capacity to cope with current and future shocks, we need to value all in the food industry as essential workers. People growing, producing, sharing, and distributing food should receive a decent income proportionate to their vital functions. Policies and rescue packages must invest in farmers, farm workers and other people who feed us, to enable a just transition to a more ecologically and socially resilient food system. Taxes, subsidies, and procurement policies must be redirected to achieve these goals.
  5. We use our power to accelerate change. In addition to holding governments to account, the changes we make at household level can shift how society values food and those producing food for the better. 
Harvesting Plants during an Ecological Agriculture and Bees Event in Japan. © Kengo Yoda / Greenpeace
Children are harvesting vegetables grown organically at a farm in Tokyo, Japan. © Kengo Yoda / Greenpeace

Here are practical actions we can take now as individual citizens for better food:

  • Reduce food waste and shift our diet towards more local ecological, in season, and mainly plant-based food
  • When preparing meals at home, use raw and fresh ingredients rather than purchasing convenient but packaging-heavy, highly-processed pre-made food. 
  • Get our hands dirty and appreciate how difficult, but also rewarding, it is to grow food. There is already a vibrant urban agriculture movement which cities need to support more and help amplify further.  
  • Connect more directly with local farmers and share with them the risks and rewards of growing food through community supported agriculture. Let’s make sure that any recovery plan also includes meaningful investment for such systems to make them even more mainstream. Let’s buy more food directly from farmers who are already transitioning to a better food system

Let’s not let this moment pass without planting the seed for a better food future for all. We all can join the food sovereignty wave! Join us? 

Éric Darier is a Food Strategist at Greenpeace International based in Montreal, Canada.