The world economy is sliding yet into another recession (having arguably barely recovered from the previous economic downturn) due to the worldwide pressures and tensions created by the COVID-19 pandemic.Footnote 1 With most countries in the world under lockdown (or in similar situations), almost all food is now consumed in the household. Arguably, agricultural producers and the retail industry appear to be the best placed to weather the storm in order to respond to such a change in demand. However, this is overly simplistic. Recent news of empty shelves in supermarkets whilst dairy farmers have been forced to pour milk down the drain have gone viral.
Through the ongoing disruptions within the food supply chain at both international and national levels, the pandemic offers a singular circumstance to rethink food provision and build resilient, sustainable and democratic agri-food systems. In particular, food democracy (sometimes also called “food citizenship”Footnote 2) provides a model for multilevel food governance to be followed post-coronavirus where a wide range of actors are involved in the design and delivery of future food systems. Consequently, this article highlights the challenges faced by the international trade in agricultural products (Section II) before indicating the dysfunctions within food supply chains from a national viewpoint (Section III) and how these issues (especially around food disruptions) can cause consumers to consider the sources of their food more carefully.Footnote 3 Most importantly, the pandemic emphasises the urgency to rebuild food systems based on a food democracy model (Section IV) before considering future developments (Section V).
II. Risks to global food trade and supply chains
At the time of writing, the spread of the virus is sweeping across the world, one country after another, with increasing intensity. The World Trade Organization (WTO) has warned that global trade could diminish by between 13% and 32% in 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak, with North America and Asia being hit the hardest, but it foresees a recovery in 2021 – albeit dependent on the length of the pandemic.Footnote 4 The supply of food is becoming increasingly difficult – highlighting the fragility of global food supply chains – thereby raising concerns of food insecurity.
Lockdowns worldwide have consequences on harvesting, production, processing, transport and logistics more generally for multiple reasons. The volume of production is negatively impacted globally. The number of employees who are self-isolating or unwell is increasing. Workplaces and spaces are being redesigned to accommodate social distancing requirements and putting in place more stringent handling procedures (including the purchase of employee personal protection equipment), whilst others are either closing for extended periods of time due to longer and deeper cleans or are planning temporary shutdowns due to staff shortages, in particular meat processing plants.Footnote 5 There is also an issue of increased food waste when containers or trucks are held up at borders. These factors are resulting in the rise of raw material prices due to discrepancies in supply and demand. This is the case in India where the prices of rice, wheat flour and pulses have risen.Footnote 6
Another issue that impacts on the production of food globally is the lack of seasonal workers to pick the fruits and vegetables in the fields due to border restrictions and travel bans. These agricultural workers are paramount to ensuring national and international food security, as they undertake highly skilled, difficult work. The European Union (EU), the UK, Canada and the USA are some of the countries particularly affected.Footnote 7 In the UK, around 80,000 seasonal employees are annually employed in the horticultural industry.Footnote 8 Usually, this workforce originates from other EU countries, especially Eastern European countries.Footnote 9 To respond to these concerns, Romania recently lifted its border restrictions temporarily to allow agricultural workers to work abroad. Many are now working in the UK or Germany – the latter needs 300,000 workers for the harvest season, such as to pick asparagus.Footnote 10
Some States are also considering export restrictions, whilst others have already put them in place to ensure stability and food security within their territory. These measures could create global food shortages, especially in poorer countries.Footnote 11 Some key staple foods are more affected than others.Footnote 12 For example, one of the top countries to produce rice, Vietnam, has temporarily ceased sales of new shipments.Footnote 13 Grain exporters, including Russia and Kazakhstan, have also suspended exports to ensure that their populations are nourished.Footnote 14 States stockpiling agricultural products could trigger increased price volatility. Such events recall the 2007–2008 world food prices peak and the resulting food insecurity crisis.Footnote 15
These restrictions are multiplying across the world despite a Joint Statement of the WTO, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) advising against such measures and stressing the importance to “show solidarity, act responsibly and adhere to our common goal of enhancing food security, food safety and nutrition and improving the general welfare of people around the world”.Footnote 16 If the uptake of these export restrictions keeps growing, they could have ripple effects on the global food supply chain. They could contribute to food insecurity worldwide – potentially increasing insecurity in the longer term in the countries having imposed these protective measures. Despite the disruptions highlighted so far, the supply to current global markets remains adequate.Footnote 17 Nonetheless, a combination of all of these changes leads to increased prices for food businesses. These increased costs will be passed on to the costumers in the future (if not having done so already).Footnote 18
With the current context, the danger of going back to the old habits of high-input, high-output modes of production – whereby external inputs (herbicides, pesticides, fertilisers) are utilised to increase the levels of food production – is growing and threatening the continuing turn towards sustainable agriculture.Footnote 19 However, at most this would likely be a short-term fix for food security, as sustainability is required in the long term.Footnote 20 The drive for sustainable agriculture must not be rolled back and should be prioritised, with renewed emphasis on tackling climate change and moving agriculture towards net-zero emissions by 2050.Footnote 21 Furthermore, many synthetic inputs are produced in China,Footnote 22 and due to the Chinese lockdown, their production has been disrupted, which could lead to some products being temporarily discontinued and intensification being challenged in the short term. The temptation to revert back to less environmentally friendly practices or to embrace novel food technologies, such as the genetic modification of crops and animals or animal cloning, should be carefully monitored and assessed. More positively, the COVID-19 crisis provides an opportunity to reconsider current agricultural approaches and to farm using greener techniques. The pandemic puts the resilience of the existing dominant food systems under strain at both international and national levels.
III. Disrupted food systems: internal perspectives
Many governments remain uncertain about how to handle the virus and contain it as it spreads. Due to this and fears over the potential impacts of the virus on public health and on food supply chains, citizens rushed to the shops to stockpile food across the globe – before lockdowns were fully in place and despite governments repeatedly asserting that there would be no food shortages.Footnote 23 This led poorer and vulnerable people to have limited access to staple foods.
In the medium to long term, as unemployment rates grow worldwide and household income decreases, citizens will prioritise their food spending. The percentage of household income dedicated to food will keep increasing, whilst the price of food will keep rising due to the disruption in food supply and the increased demand by citizens.Footnote 24 Relying on supplies from food banks will become a necessity for many, whilst contributions are problematically diminishing.Footnote 25 Programmes and schemes ought to be put in place to support struggling households. An international food crisis is also a possibility.Footnote 26 Some organisations are calling for a “global stimulus package to fight a COVID-19 hunger crisis”,Footnote 27 whilst the G20 suspended debt payments for low-income nations.Footnote 28 Citizens in low- and middle-income countries should not be forgotten. The ongoing developments are highlighting the strong links between food security and public health and could deepen global inequalities.
The main source of food and agricultural products for citizens is now retailers, mostly supermarkets. Queuing to enter shops and supermarkets has become the new norm, as well as rationing. Supermarkets have placed limits on how many items of the same product people can buy, including milk, toilet paper and flour. They also have restricted the number of customers on the shop floor at any one time and implemented a “one in, one out” system. Because citizens are either on lockdown restrictions or have been told to stay at home as much as possible, more online orders are being placed, with citizens choosing home deliveries or “click and collect”Footnote 29 options. Again, supermarkets have had to adapt to the increasing online demand. Today, shop floors are packed with employees picking the products ordered by consumers to get online orders ready. Many supermarket chains have recruited staff to help in this effort to “feed the nation”.Footnote 30 Food retailers are booming in terms of employee numbers, public orders and consumption.
From a citizen perspective, there seem to be “shortages”. Some shelves are rarely replenished, and there is a lack of availability of certain products, especially baby formula and flour. In contrast, it has been reported throughout the world that dairy farmers are pouring perfectly safe milk down the drain.Footnote 31 Similarly, flour mills have been running at capacity for the last few weeks, yet flour does not seem to be back on the shelves.Footnote 32 This contrasts with the earlier statement that agricultural producers would be benefitting from the situation.
So, what is the problem? It is not due to the lack of demand in shops or the availability of the agricultural commodity, but to the (dis)organisation of the supply chains. To put it simply, the food supply chain is split between providing food for retail and for food service businesses (restaurants, cafes, fast food chains, delis, bars and pubs). The latter often buy in bulk (often tankers, large containers or bags), whilst the former only require reduced quantities in smaller packaging. The ongoing situation in shops indicates that the food supply chain is not equipped to adapt quickly to modified demand both in terms of increased quantities and sourcing the relevant containers or packaging. The availability of smaller containers for flour bags, milk cartons and even tinned food is insufficient to cope with the expanded demand in retail.Footnote 33 There is a lack of capacity for this type of demand. Another difference between retail and food service markets is the nature of the foods sold: the latter often attract more high-end, gourmet products, such as prime cuts of meat, than the former, thus it is difficult to shift products from one to the other. These major shifts in consumption patterns are impacting on the resilience of all of the industries involved in food supply chains.
The loss of demand from all food service businesses due to the often imposed shutdowns is modifying the location and place of food consumption. Sadly, this shortfall is often not compensated by a corresponding increase in retail consumption.Footnote 34 In the USA, the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) estimates that “10% of the nation’s milk supply is without a home for the foreseeable future”.Footnote 35 Finding a new home for lost demand is proving difficult. The markets are having difficulties in adjusting to this new normal. Such a reorganisation of food production takes up many resources in terms of time and costs because the industry works on well-established networks and food supply chains.
The COVID-19 crisis indicates that the “just-in-time characteristic of the food supply chain”Footnote 36 and its logistics cannot easily cope with disruptions and turbulence. Just-in-time supply chains aim to guarantee the freshness of products and to reduce waste, but they require the coordination and effectiveness of each actor along the chain. However, when one of its elements is negatively affected, it has consequences on others.Footnote 37 When multiple actors are impacted, the long-lasting ramifications can be felt from the primary producer to the citizen.
The lack of capacity for adaptation and change in the food supply chain highlights the relatively weak role of the farmer in food systems, despite the farmer being the one who actually provides the raw agricultural product. The farmer is only one (small) actor and depends on the other actors in the food supply chain to sell their produce. The ongoing issues reinforce the calls to address concerns about the unfairness within agri-food supply chains.Footnote 38 A stronger role for farmers in food systems is crucial to an approach based on food democracy.
IV. Food democracy as a model for multilevel food governance post-pandemic
The pandemic indicates the urgency of rethinking the food system and its characteristics. There appears to be limited food security, as is demonstrated when the system is put under pressure. There is little resilience or flexibility, and this is partially linked to the weak position of farmers and the existence of long food supply chains. Often, citizens do not feel in control of the international food supply chain or food provenance. They feel like food choice is imposed by the supply chain. For example, in Wales it can be difficult from time to time to buy locally sourced Welsh produce, especially lamb, since 40% of it is exported – mostly to the EU (even when in season).Footnote 39
A food democracy model gives citizens opportunities to actively participate in how sustainable food systems are constructed in order to enable alternative perspectives on how food should be produced and consumed. The term “food democracy” was coined in the 1990s by Lang.Footnote 40 Food democracy creates a framework that is about building a transformative, alternative food system to empower citizens through choices and to allow them to find greater satisfaction in a food system that reflects shared values underpinning societies and that sells sustainable produce that people want.Footnote 41 These individual choices about where people buy food demonstrate “the degree of control consumers can exert” on food systems.Footnote 42 This model for multilevel food governance can be characterised as citizens wanting “better food, more information and choices, and preference for local action and personal involvement”,Footnote 43 and it ought to be followed when rebuilding food supply chains.
This section draws upon the work of Petetin on food democracy. She identifies four essential characteristics of a food democracy model (that builds upon traditional concepts of democracy); attributes that can indeed be found in the ongoing developments triggered by COVID-19:
i. True information, genuine choice and alternative products being offered to consumers;
ii. Upstream engagement and bottom up approach in the decision-making process;
iii. Good health, food safety, sustainable agriculture and environmental protection, improvement of the rights of farmers and agricultural workers and their opportunities; and,
iv. Restoration of faith and trust in the food system, its institutions and in farmers. Footnote 44
Since the lockdowns have been put in place, some small, family farms have been thriving. Vegetable and fruit box schemes that sell directly to citizens have boomed, especially organic ones.Footnote 45 Whilst costs are similar to normal shops, they enable access without queuing (when available for order). It is also possible that citizens perceive this as a “treat” since they can no longer go to restaurants. Many schemes were not able to accept new customers temporarily due to the swift increase in demand for local produce. The situation was similar for some local butchers who had to temporarily closeFootnote 46 in order to move to deliveries and collections, whilst giving them time to improve their websites in order to enable such changes. It appears that some small local shops and agricultural producers are showing a certain degree of adaptation and resilience to cope with feeding the local population (characteristic ii).
By buying fruit and vegetable boxes and going to their local butchers and bakers, citizens are taking charge of their food consumption, choosing what they want to eat and building a democratic agri-food system (characteristics i and iv). This is different from going to the restaurant or getting takeaways since citizens often do not know the provenance of the foods from these services. These alternative ways of shopping have turned “consumers” into “active citizens” who carefully choose what is on their plate.Footnote 47 Furthermore, in a recent blogpost, Hawkes sets the scene for a new normal post-pandemic based on eating well and embracing the opportunity “to open the floodgates to nutritious foods – taking unhealthy foods and their relentless promotion out of the spotlight”.Footnote 48 Buying locally and directly from farmers arguably means the consumption of healthier, more nutritious food and could have a positive impact on public health. Shorter supply chains can mean less packaging and processing and reduce food miles (characteristic iii) and will strengthen the importance of farmers in food systems (characteristic iv). It is to be hoped that this renewed interest for locally grown and reared food will last post-pandemic and will durably encourage more sustainable and healthier lifestyles.
More citizens have also taken up gardening and have been buying seeds and thus improving their self-sufficiency and increasing national food security.Footnote 49 This decision by citizens to be in charge of their food choices reinforces the multi-actor and multilevel framework underpinning food democracy.
In early April 2020, it was reported that 26,000 British citizens had positively responded to the British shortfall in agricultural workers.Footnote 50 This was hailed as a positive, welcome move (characteristic iv). It has now emerged that only 6000 British citizens were interviewed to undertake these jobs.Footnote 51 The main reasons given for not progressing with the applications were the length of the contract, the location of the farm and the inability to work full-time due to caring duties. A UK cross-industry online platform has now been created to link fruit and vegetables farms to job-seekers.Footnote 52 In order to reduce the shortfall, Romanian agricultural workers were flown into the UK.Footnote 53 More citizens need to come forward to ensure that fruits and vegetables are not left to rot in the fields, especially to pick labour-intensive fruits such as strawberries. Otherwise, this could lead to the reduced availability of fresh produce on the shelves.
Here, the crisis provides the chance to train and develop skills for local workers. They ought to be perceived as “essential workers” who should be valued, allowed to work in good conditions and receive decent wages in line with food democracy characteristics.Footnote 54 This could ensure a reliable and long-lasting workforce in the future for farmers and of employment for the local population (characteristic iii).
The COVID-19 crisis highlights the centralisedFootnote 55 characteristics of food systems – some of which heighten vulnerabilities and lead to insecurity. Food democracy provides a decentralised framework for food systems that offers the opportunity to redesign the food supply chain to focus to a greater extent on sustainability and local and regional production by building stronger direct links between retailers and local farms. Democratised agri-food systems put to the fore different sustainable types of farming practices and construct alternative models of production, distribution and retailing that offer choices and alternatives for people with various incomes.
Overall, a shift towards fulfilling the criteria of a food democracy model can be observed. It is, however, not guaranteed that these positive shifts will be maintained post-pandemic. Further steps are required to strengthen democratic agri-food systems. In particular, financial agricultural support needs to be redesigned to support small, family farms to a greater extent in their role as local food producers. Farms, as small and medium-sized enterprises, are essential to rural vitality and the local economy. They can facilitate the establishment and flourishing of businesses and economic activities such as rural tourism, cultural services, recreational activities and access to local products, thereby providing local employment. Supporting the diversification of holdings and the development of cooperatives to take up not only production, but also processing and packaging on a small scale could improve the finances of their businesses, enhance access to food and strengthen a democratic agri-food system. Furthermore, small, family farms are stewards of the countryside and tend to be environmentally friendly by creating greater biodiversity and a wider range of habitats on the land through the use of extensive, alternative agricultural farming practices,Footnote 56 such as agroecology and agroforestry,Footnote 57 contributing to the strengthening of agri-food systems (characteristic iii).Footnote 58
Another step could be to integrate more fully food and agricultural policies. The current Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform and the ongoing UK and devolved consultations on future agricultural policies post-EU exit (including the 2020 Agriculture Bill) could create such frameworks and mechanisms. Currently, agricultural policy and food strategies are formulated in isolation from each other.Footnote 59 The European Green Deal, which includes a “Farm to Fork Strategy” that aims to strengthen the production of safe, nutritious food of high quality as well as increasing its sustainability,Footnote 60 will partially respond to this siloed approach. However, a more holistic approach between agriculture and food underpinned by a strong community focus should be adopted. The pandemic highlights the importance of formulating policies (and resulting bills) that combine both agricultural and food aspects.
V. Further food for thought
With the breakdown of international trade because States are closing their borders to keep food supplies within their territory and companies either are closing or are not fully operational, food provisioning is becoming increasingly difficult. Existing weaknesses and tensions in complex, interconnected and global food supply chains have been exacerbated by COVID-19. Despite the multiplicity of farmers, bottlenecks in the food supply chain are often due to consolidation and integration within the industry because of the presence of a limited number of processing plants, abattoirs and retailers. In the UK, Brexit will potentially add another layer to the ongoing crisis since the future trading relationship with the EU remains uncertain.
With the current changes in the food supply chain, food citizens are providing the impetus for change and have become empowered to influence and nurture better food provisioning to “create a more sustainable and just society where the public can actively participate in the decision-making process for foods”.Footnote 61 The pandemic is creating a rare opportunity for radical changeFootnote 62 to transform food supply chains and build resilient, sustainable and democratic agri-food systems (including in the design of financial agricultural support). Post-pandemic, food democracy generates a strong framework for multilevel food governance by putting the emphasis on local and regional production that encourages the consumption of seasonal and healthy produce (in combination with longer food supply chains and the provisioning of sustainable products), employing local agricultural workers and establishing better relationships between producers and retailers, whilst ensuring that the security and diversity of food are maintained. These modifications triggered by local, national and international factors ought to be reflected in the future policies of individual States and international organisations integrating food and agriculture, including the ongoing CAP reform, the 2020 UK Agriculture Bill and the Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish visions for future agri-food systems.