Q&A with Hannah Wittman on how COVID-19 is affecting food systems

May 5, 2020

Since long before restaurants began shutting down due to social distancing measures around the COVID-19 pandemic, Peter Wall Institute Associate Hannah Wittman has been researching better ways to put food on tables in British Columbia and around the world.

Wittman is a professor in UBC’s Faculty of Land and Food Systems and the academic director of the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC Farm. She was also the co-principle investigator for a 2019 Wall Institute funded International Research Roundtable that examined the links between food security and biodiversity conservation in the 21st century. Today, this research has gained new urgency in light of massive challenges not just in the ways we shop and eat locally, but also for the future of food security and justice in global food systems.

The Peter Wall Institute caught up with Wittman to discuss how the changes taking place are crystalizing issues around food system sustainability and what consumers can do to support a better future.

PWIAS: How is COVID-19 affecting food systems?

Hannah Wittman: COVID has very quickly affected every part of the food system. Many consumers, and the media, are concerned about bottlenecks along the supply chain, leading to perceptions of food shortages and temporary price increases in certain products. These made it easy to see some serious pre-existing structural cracks in our global and local food systems.

It’s important to look beyond the headlines. Not just in B.C., but globally, much of our regional food supply was aimed at the food services sector—cafeterias, restaurants, and school lunch programs. In the same day, you’ll see an article about empty shelves in the supermarket and then an article about farmers dumping milk down the drain or plowing in vegetables. For some food products, we don’t have enough local storage and processing capacity to absorb and re-distribute production that had been destined for the food service market into the consumer market. Retailers and distributors are making rapid adjustments to fill this gap. Farmers are also organizing to reach more local consumers through community supported agriculture, farmers markets, and direct-market distribution chains.

Beyond these initial supply chain disruptions, there are more important and long-term concerns about rising rates of food insecurity, particularly from reduced income due to unemployment. Prior to COVID-19, 1 in 8 Canadians were already experiencing food insecurity—this number is expected to rise drastically. And globally, the number of people in severe food crisis is expected to double due to COVID-19. Even if food supply chains stabilize—most experts suggest that widespread shortages of most food products are unlikely in the short term—loss of income for both farmers and consumers will have an additional ripple effect on agricultural supply systems.

PWIAS: How do labour practises figure in?

HW: Many farms depend on seasonal agricultural workers, and many of them are concerned about their ability to hire workers that need to travel to our region, while ensuring working conditions that are safe for them. A recent outbreak amongst farm workers at a nursery in Kelowna is just one example.

Given the appalling conditions faced by many farmworkers, especially in food processing facilities, it is more clear than ever that farms and food processing facilities must develop long-needed improvements in worker-safety, housing, wages and health precautions to prevent the collapse of agricultural production systems.

UBC Farm is able to continue to grow food because we have a safety plan that ensures that people are able to safely work in physically distant ways. But other parts of the agricultural system face different challenges for worker safety. In the meat packing industry, people often work shoulder to shoulder and concentration in ownership of packing facilities means that when one centralized facility shuts down due to a COVID-19 outbreak, farmers face limited options for where to sell their livestock. Supply shortages and rising prices are a short term outcome of this concentration in the system.

PWIAS: What possibilities for change might exist in this massive restructuring?

HW: We need to go back to the basics:  to build a food system based on sustainability, human rights, workers’ rights and nutritious diets. Our research has shown that a sustainable, resilient food system involves food sovereignty—a system that builds up regional food production capacity, connects to consumer markets and trade regimes in fair and equitable ways, that supports farmer and farmworker livelihoods and respects Indigenous food systems. 

We’re not suggesting that any one community needs to produce all of its food locally or that everyone needs to start gardening. We need a system that’s dynamic and flexible enough that it can respond to crises like this, so if one part of the system breaks down, other actors can fill the gap. When you have a highly vertically integrated and concentrated food system, cracks in one part of the supply chain reverberate to the whole sector. COVID-19 has really shown us that.

PWIAS: What might we as consumers do to support sustainable food systems?

HW: Consumers can learn more about where local food is coming from and create relationships with their regional and local supply chains. Farmer’s markets across BC have started online stores so you can make an order ahead of time. They’ve restructured markets to enable physical distancing. Consumers can also engage in food systems policy work to improve our regional capacity for resilient food systems. Our voices count, in addition to our forks!