It is without doubt that the pandemic has impacted our food supply chain - An industry once evolved to feed a globalised world has now been scaled back to the local level in some cases…
As part of China’s economic transformation in the 1990s, they increased their food production systems to industrial scale. One notable side effect of this meant that small-holder farmers were undercut and pushed entirely out of the livestock industry. In a bid to search for new ways to earn a living, many turned to farming ‘wild’ species that had previously only been eaten for subsistence.
At the time, this was seen as a profitable sector and ‘wild food’ was formalised, increasingly becoming branded as a luxury food item. However, the smallholder farmers were not only pushed out economically, but geographically as well. This is evident through the exponential growth of industrial farming which acquired huge swathes of land, thereby encouraging small-scale farmers to cultivate closer to the forest edge and in forbidden territories. As our planet’s population continues to increase, so too does the occurrence of humans encroaching into exotic places and valuable ecosystems, and the risk of exacerbating infectious diseases becomes ever more apparent.
Similarly, the Chinese ‘wet markets’ alone present a further risk of virus transmission. When these exotic animals from different environments are kept in close proximity to one another, it provides a breeding ground for viruses to jump from one species to another, giving them reason to amplify, mutate, and develop into something much worse. In recent decades human infections of animal origin have been widely documented, such as the Asian Flu in 1956, SARS in 2002, and H7N9 which killed four in ten people. If humans continue to interfere on these biodiversity hotspots, nature will find its way of fighting back.
Most of the attention so far has been focused on the deplorable conditions of ‘wet markets’ in China. It is without doubt that these wet markets will need to be better regulated, but it is also important to look at how our food is produced on a global scale.
While scientists do not have a definite answer to how exactly COVID-19 originated, it is believed that other pandemic virus threats such as swine flu and bird flu almost certainly evolved at pig and chicken factory farms. Links have already been established between increased pandemic risks and intensive animal agriculture, hence there should be a stronger focus on factory farm conditions, and possibly rethink how we can feed our populations in a safe way. Maybe we should all just turn Vegan?
The pandemic has also highlighted the poor conditions in the meat processing industry. In recent weeks Germany has seen several coronavirus outbreaks among meat factory employees and has even put two districts in western Germany in quarantine after more than 1,550 workers at the Tönnies slaughterhouse were infected with the disease. There is undoubtedly a need for better regulations here too.
As we have spent more time in lockdown, people have become more attuned with the nature that surrounds them. Many people have even tried growing their own food, which is certainly a positive development for the future. In line with this, urban farming and vertical farming will become more crucial. Localising food production will lead to significant cuts in fossil fuel consumption, help consumers reduce their carbon footprint, and help provide them with the opportunity to purchase food that has been grown in their community.
With our planet's population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, there's no escaping the fact that food production around the world needs to increase while also ensuring citizens’ health is kept in check. It is important now that we use our voices and vote for those who will hold agribusiness to higher standards on social and ecological grounds, take an active stance against the illegal wildlife trade and encourage the localisation of food production so that future generations can be sustained.