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April 8, 2020

I have just returned from my family’s farm in Pennsylvania, where I was helping my retired parents avoid exposure to coronavirus. It’s impossible to go back to business-as-usual when we consider how this pandemic will affect the whole world and how we don’t yet understand its extent or which countries will be most affected. But we can be sure that the effects won’t be limited to the disease itself. Food systems around the world will be disrupted, and this will primarily affect people with the least ability to buy or produce their own food.

Panic-buying in context

While in Pennsylvania, I made a few supplies runs for my parents in small towns nearby. I noticed that in addition to the lack of toilet paper, fresh poultry and eggs were also completely depleted, along with a few other staples. There was still plenty of food overall, but seeing shelves emptied of chicken and turkey products was ironic because there used to be many small poultry growers in the region.

In recent decades, many poultry farms have gone out of business, along with other types of small farms with diverse production. My own family’s farmland is currently leased to a neighbor and no longer has any animals or vegetables. Instead, they are growing just organic corn, soybean, and alfalfa which are shipped via intermediaries to specialized producers of animal products.

This continues to be a rising trend across the country. Most farmers grow soybeans and corn which are turned into animal feed, oils, and sweet syrups to make processed food and soda. These crops are also being burned in cars and trucks as biofuel.

Forcing farmers to be highly specialized, our country’s food system also sets them up to depend on a single buyer who is just one part of long supply chains. This system clearly breaks down in times of crisis. In Pennsylvania, dairy farmers whose primary consumers are schools, which are now closed, were told to dump thousands of gallons of milk down literal drains.

Among my extended family, one household grows guinea fowl for a buyer who ships them to a New York City market. But the pandemic has completely disrupted that market. Without obvious solutions to sell them elsewhere, the guineas are going past their prime, and my relatives are running the risk of a major loss.

When larger farms and longer supply chains don’t cut it

When a crisis affects supply chains, some of the world’s population will still have the means to buy food, even if we have to cut back on some desired items. Globally, however, many people spend most of their money for food on a daily basis, and they lack access to the resources to grow their own. Many small-scale farmers around the world have meager access to land, water, credit, and markets, and they are often excluded from the healthcare, education, and social safety nets they need to secure their livelihoods and boost their food production.

Most member states in the United Nations have long agreed that food, healthcare, and education are human rights which contemporary economies can and must realize for all people. To that end, we must take a human rights-based approach to food systems, rather than allowing land to be concentrated in the hands of distant investors and a few companies to control and profit from the bottlenecks and choke points in our long supply chains.

Governments have also recognized that agriculture and food supply are not like any other business, yet their agricultural policies have often skewed towards incentivizing larger farms and longer supply chains, both of which are controlled by big companies with lots of exports and imports. The crises of climate change, natural disasters, and now pandemics show the need for governments to shift their policies.

Contrary to attempts to blame any single country for coronavirus, biologist Rob Wallace has documented how the global mega-plantation and factory farming system is increasing the threat of pandemics. Massive concentrated feeding operations with birds and animals that have practically identical genes are the perfect laboratories for the evolution of viral disease. Around the world, large-scale mechanized farms are pushing smallholder farmers off their land and into either fragile lands or crowded cities. Many farmers are turning to risky livelihoods like the trade in wildlife meat for urban populations, which can also play a role in virus evolution.

While most can agree that access to imported foods for both pleasure and food security is desirable and often necessary, we need to move toward much more local and diverse food production everywhere. We need to generate more independent and secure livelihoods in food systems in both rural and urban areas. This is a big part of what it means to have food sovereignty, which in turn strengthens food security.

To achieve food sovereignty, we must:

  • Break the power of market control and stop the increasing concentration of land holdings by big companies;
  • Support the maintenance and creation of more territorial markets, which in much of the world already serve local communities as well as cities and regions;
  • Enact regulatory systems that support and encourage the reestablishment of smaller, territorially based food processing, including farmer-owned cooperatives and the ability of farmers and consumers to have more local and regional choices;
  • Bolster diverse food production in many localities, including urban ones which can also provide food options for more distant markets.

There are precedents in many countries for good government actions that would help to make this transition. In Brazil, from 2002 to 2016, the government was successful in introducing a series of Zero Hunger polices that strengthened food access for poor people and connected local producers to markets and food preparers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through one of their lesser known programs, has already been experimenting with promoting “food hubs.” We also have anti-trust laws and other legislation breaking up the harmful concentration of markets. Some states have laws preventing corporate takeover of farmland, although they are insufficient to prevent its accumulation by other wealth and distant investors.

The resilience of local food systems

There is no shortage of people interested in food and all aspects of its production. Many young people would enjoy the challenge and autonomy of farming if they had access to land, safety nets, guaranteed health care, and opportunities to learn.

At ActionAid, we are working to stop land grabbing and concentration of farmland by institutional investors such as TIAA in the U.S. and other countries. And as we learn more about the extent of this current pandemic compounded with the climate crisis we are doubling down on our efforts to promote policies that support a just transition for agriculture.

Even as agribusiness prospers at the expense of family farms, there continues to be an increasing number of small farms with diverse production in Pennsylvania – resilient, productive farms that are the basis of Amish and conservative Mennonite communities. These communities are dedicated to farming with horses and mules for fieldwork, and even though some members need to seek outside work to raise money to invest in their farming, they show it’s possible to keep small farms going even under adverse conditions.

One more example of why connecting family farmers to nearby communities and cities is especially important right now: While I lamented the lack of poultry at the supermarkets near my parents’ home, my mother reminded me of a local farm that still dresses their own fresh chicken and turkey for community-based sales. It was easy to call and place an order for our family, and the chicken was much more flavorful than the supermarket brands.