The spread of the coronavirus is shining a spotlight on the weakest links in the global food supply chain. This could have long-term implications on how we feed ourselves. Most dramatically, some people are facing a heightened risk of famine. The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) warned in a new report that “we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months,” because of the virus. The head of the WFP remained optimistic, however, saying this could be avoided by acting quickly and wisely.
The alarming number of Covid-19 cases in US meat packing plants is also highlighting what labour unions are calling long-standing problems in the sector, like worker exploitation. A BBC piece analysed the case of the huge Smithfield meat plant in South Dakota – responsible for 4-5% of the total pork production in the country – which was forced to close after 644 employees contracted the disease. Efforts by the USDA to stabilise the food supply only made things worse. It removed speed limits on a lot of meat plants, forcing employees to work closer together, heightening the contamination risk which could then force the whole plant to close.
Labour unions see a silver lining, however, as the whole country turns its attention to the previously ignored but essential role of the food worker. For one, companies are accelerating efforts to protect employees. A food union recently announced that JBS agreed to increase wages and reinforce safety precautions. Nevertheless, some argue that companies are offering too little too late – around 12 meat plants in North America are reportedly closed or idled. The situation is similar in Canada where Cargill agreed to slow production to protect employees at an Alberta plant but only after dozens of employees caught the disease.
These meat packing plants are often located in Midwestern states where the quarantine orders are the weakest. Many Governors of the so-called Corn Belt have refused to issue stay-at-home orders but local officials warn that infection numbers are starting to soar. Despite a growing concern, the head of the USDA reassured that the meat and dairy supply was so far not affected. He added that the agency will support the sector by buying and stocking products.
For the most part, governments around the world are working hard to make sure the poorest are still able to buy enough food and medicine. However, the informal sector has also been stepping in to help. In Italy, well-known mafia members have been seen distributing food parcels, while armed narco-traffickers in Mexico were traveling across the country to supply the poorest households with food. Some recognised the daughter of El Chapo handing out packages advertising her company “El Chapo 701”. In response, the Mexican President urged the groups to focus on reducing violence instead.
In Croatia, the government is urging the young and unemployed to consider working in the agricultural sector to help address a labour shortage. The crisis helped “enhance” the importance of the sector, a minister said. The Austrian agriculture minister, meanwhile, asked consumers to help support the livelihoods of local farmers by buying more goods produced in their regions. She also encouraged supermarkets to offer discounts on local products. In the same vein, the British Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN) urged people to buy more locally and sustainably produced goods, and to consider working or volunteering on a farm.
Changing consumer habits are helping rural grocery stores in the US which witnessed a surge in interest as people try to avoid crowded supermarkets. Nevertheless, grocers are worried that the trend will not last, as experts predict that online retailers will benefit the most. Online sales have been a lifesaver for many small coffee shops, although that might not be enough to stop many shops from closing. The Counter even wonders whether “Starbucks will be the last one standing”. Independent coffee operations remain hopeful, however, noting that the 1918 Spanish Flu was followed by the Roaring Twenties, a “transformative” time for coffee.
Another sign that food is gaining in visibility is that Americans are using most of the USD 1,200 they are receiving from the government to buy groceries. But shoppers are looking at food items differently in these times, as this Quartz survey of 27,244 readers showed. Respondents now prioritise boxed wine and vodka over beer and whiskey, or spam over strawberries. You can see below the difference between the pandemic popularity of some items and their everyday popularity:
This summary was produced by ECRUU
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