Building democratic food systems following COVID-19

By Ludivine Petetin

Amidst the grimness of the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be difficult to see the opportunities arising from it. However, all over the UK and Wales there are pockets of hope and good practice that indicate how food systems could become more resilient. This blog post is based on an open access journal article that I wrote in April 2020 entitled ‘The COVID-19 Crisis: An Opportunity to Integrate Food Democracy into Post-Pandemic Food Systems’.

1. Interconnected food supply chains

The disruption within food systems and the lack of certain foods on the shelves is highlighting the interconnectedness of our food supply chains. Looking outside the UK, some countries have put in place measures to restrict the export of staple foods. They have done this for two main reasons: to guarantee their stability and avoid civil unrest, and to ensure their own food security. However, such export restrictions will have consequences for the world market in terms of food availability and price volatility, and ultimately could lead to international food shortages and a possible worldwide food crisis – affecting the most vulnerable.

Within the UK, disruptions to the ‘just-in-time’ methods of the food supply chain have indicated how closely linked all actors are: the farmer grows cereals, the miller grinds the grain, another company packages the flour, different people again take care of logistics and transport, including delivery drivers, and (often) the supermarket sells the flour – and this is not an exhaustive list. Indeed, flour is a good example of a staple food that is elusive on the food shelves – indicating how intricated but fragile the food supply chain really is.

Under the circumstances, there is a risk of a return to less environmentally friendly practices. Calls to intensify food production in response to shortages could threaten the move towards further sustainable agriculture. However, and more positively, this crisis should be seen as an opportunity to use more sustainable techniques, such as agroecology and agroforestry, and to redesign food systems post-pandemic by building a new model of multilevel food governance based on food democracy.

2. More democratic food systems

In Wales, we have seen how some local farmers, suppliers and shops have been particularly resilient in supplying the local population. In and around Cardiff, butchers like Oriel Jones and Martin Player have modified their businesses to increase their online presence and add home deliveries – indicating the ability to quickly diversify. Meanwhile, fruit and vegetable box schemes, such as the Welsh Food Box Company and Paul’s Organic Vegetables, have responded to the increased local demand. It is to be applauded that the local population can count on its local shops and growers and it is to be hoped that this momentum for local, sustainable and healthy food will remain post lockdown.

My article suggests four characteristics for a ‘food democracy’ model to build upon to increase the reliability, locality and resilience of food systems post-pandemic (combined with longer, sustainable food supply chains). Some of these new approaches are already emerging  during COVID-19, whilst others still require improvement:

  1. True information, genuine choice and alternative products being offered to consumers: this is demonstrated by the increased interest from citizens in where their food comes from (i.e. food provenance) as well as how it was produced, with a shift in consumption pattern towards local fruit and vegetable box schemes, local butchers and bakeries.
  2. Upstream engagement and a bottom-up approach in the decision-making process: this starts with local authorities being more involved in supporting local food production, and feeding into the future agri-food policy still under formulation by Welsh Government. They should act upwards, and Welsh Government should be ready to listen to them.
  3. Good health, food safety, sustainable agriculture and environmental protection, improvement of the rights of farmers and agricultural workers and their opportunities: strengthening and shortening food supply chains, leading to fewer food miles, less packaging and processing; also active participation by the public, for instance in harvesting fruits and vegetables.
  4. Restoration of faith and trust in the food system, its institutions and in farmers: this includes a stronger and fairer role for the farmer; transparent food supply chains with fair dealing; a local population interested in supporting local producers either by buying their products or becoming an agricultural worker; and stronger links between supermarkets and local producers.

3. Multilevel food systems

The COVID-19 crisis shows how food supply chains and agri-food policies functions on many levels, from the local to the international. Political decisions on agri-food made at one level impact on all the others. What is needed is increased coordination between the different levels of governments and governance within Wales and beyond. This should lead to agri-food policies that are joined up and support primary producers and local shops.

The ‘Sustainable Farming and our Land’ document published in 2019 is no longer sufficient to solve the issues faced by the sector post COVID-19. The pandemic makes it clear that agriculture and food policies can no longer be kept apart. They need bringing together, as the new President of the EU Commission is aiming to do with its new Farm to Fork Strategy, part of the European Green Deal. A holistic, forward-looking approach towards agri-food systems built on a multilevel agri-food governance is the way forward for all level of governments – from local authorities, to Welsh Government and beyond.

Dr Ludivine Petetin is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the School of Law and Politics and the Wales Governance Centre of Cardiff University. Her expertise lies in agri-food issues and international trade as well as the challenges that Brexit and COVID-19 pose to these areas.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s