The COVID-19 crisis is exposing an enduring and extremely dangerous problem — the inequities within our food system. In 2018, the USDA released a report that around 11% of American households were facing food insecurity. Today, that number is much higher secondary to the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. It turns out that large swaths of the population are one paycheck away from being broke and one meal away from being hungry.
The global reality is no different.
As evident throughout history, food insecurity creates more than just hunger; it also leads to civic unrest and global conflict. It is widely agreed that high food prices triggered the Arab Spring — the unprecedented year of public uprisings and protests that started in Tunisia and quickly spread to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria. Similarly, the Sahel, a semiarid region of western and north-central Africa, has endured tremendous civil conflict for the last ten years and is home to some of the worlds’ most food insecure countries. These crises have led to further fragmentation at the societal level, pitting community against community, the haves against the have nots.
In the age of COVID-19, we find ourselves again in a troubling period of rising hunger and further fragmentation. Our failure to work together as nations and as people have only made the problem worse.
The food system isn’t broken. We are.
It is foolhardy to suggest that our food system is broken; in fact, it’s working just as planned. One needs to look no further than a “post-colonized” Africa for evidence of resource exploitation. Africa produces around 80% of the world’s cocoa, but gets only 2% of the $100 billion revenue. For every $1 of aid the continent receives, it is estimated to lose an average $24 in net outflows, leading to an over 40 billion dollar trade deficit. On account of multinational corporations misreporting their profits and repatriating their earnings, unfair trade policies, and illegal harvesting of resources, Africa subsidizes the rest of the world. Yes, Africa subsidizes the world.
The problem with our food system, in a nutshell, is two-fold: (1) its dogmatic focus on yield and profits, not people; and (2) the perpetuation of inequities through the consolidation of control by transnational corporations.
Before the pandemic, food production steadily increased at a rate faster than population growth. We produced 17% more food per person in 2019 than we did 30 years ago — enough to feed over 10 billion people. Yet 1.2 billion people are malnourished and over 795 million are severely hungry when they do not need to be. While profits in agriculture were at an all time high, more than 50% of farmers in the global south live below the poverty line. Furthermore, a staggering one-third of nutritious food produced is wasted; meanwhile, we are being fed a myth that we cannot feed a growing population.
Injustice has been baked into the bedrock of agriculture’s foundation since the neolithic revolution. Academics like Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari have written extensively on how the transition from a nomadic to an agrarian society unearthed social hierarchies and vast inequalities, such as patriarchy and slavery. Today, misplaced government subsidies, land grabs, international trade deals and corporate control of seeds are all perfected forms of early agricultural oppression. On average farmers receive less than 10 cents for your $5 box of cereal and only 11 cents for a loaf of bread. Neither the smallholder farmer in Ethiopia nor the poultry farmer under contract in Arkansas operates with sovereignty. Instead, through consolidation of control, both are at the mercy of industrial conglomerates. Four companies presently control over 75% of the world’s grain production, and 60% of commodity seeds. Recent agricultural mergers, including Dow-Dupont and Monsanto-Bayer, should give us all a reason to be uneasy, as this consolidation further threatens a democratic food system and exploits our health.
COVID-19 is further exposing these problems. Evident in the irony that the Trump administration spent the last three years trying to build a wall to stop migration, today’s farmworkers, who are overwhelmingly migrant laborers from Central America, are essential to our health and well-being. The pandemic has led to school closures, leaving already vulnerable children hungry. Public food shelters and assistance programs have been understaffed or shut down while farmers markets have been restricted. The loss of seasonal farmworkers have resulted in unharvested crops, contributing to food shortages that lead to hoarding and global price speculation. And even though the disease does not discriminate, society does and has, as marginalized communities grapple with disproportionately higher mortality rates. Although many long for society to go back to normal, it is now evident that normal wasn’t working. Furthermore, if we continue to farm as normal, we have 60 years of harvest left due to unprecedented carbon loss.
It seems that COVID-19 is shining a light on the agricultural onion, and once the technological and corporate successes are peeled away, the true social and environmental costs become visible.
The Solution: The Peasant Food Web.
Smallholder farmers, peasants, and Indigenous Peoples continue to feed the world, despite this unparalleled economic, social, and environmental adversity. Indeed, smallholder farmers produce 70% of the world’s food supply from only 20% of the world’s arable land. Even with so much less, smallholder farmers continue to outproduce industrial agriculture, demonstrating great efficiency with essential resources, sunlight and carbon. This reality is and has always been a clear example of how adversity breeds ingenuity and resilience.
In the past, we have looked to Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and age-old Institutions to give answers to complex, societal problems. Today, let’s instead look to the frontlines. Although different from healthcare workers who are courageously braving the pandemic to care for the sick, farmers, peasants, and Indigenous Peoples represent another frontline community keeping us alive in the midst of this crisis. This Peasant Food Web exists in the prairies of North Dakota, the forested hills of Vietnam, the desert oases of Egypt, the high-elevation mountains of Peru, and the savannahs of Kenya; a community representing almost 40% of the world’s population. Industrial solutions treat these producers as helpless beneficiaries rather than active participants and problem solvers. Sometimes nomadic, migratory, or even landless, they still protect 95% of our agricultural biodiversity.
The Hunger For Justice Series
Like our food system, these crises are global, and represent a collective opportunity to make things right. In honor of a global response, AGC is announcing The Hunger for Justice Series, a weekly live broadcast about how we feed everyone in a Post-Covid World. Our food system is interconnected, and instead of focusing on symptoms like hunger, we will be drawing connections to the root causes of our failing food system, such as poverty, cultural degradation, racism, and neoliberalism.
Sometimes the best way to learn is to unlearn, and the best way to unlearn is to listen to the voices that have been silenced. Starting with actual case studies of resilience, AGC will showcase the stories and voices of our global network, highlighting local solutions to feeding the world on a changing planet. Each week, we will be hosting an hour long, candid conversation with activists at the frontlines of the global food movement. Themes like gender equality, farmworker rights, trade policy, seed patents, climate change, and land grabs will be explored through the lens of food sovereignty. These stories will provide a foundation for Part Two of our series, a collaborative, multi-session discussion where we unite the frontlines with global strategists in order to reimagine a global response to the injustice that COVID-19 has laid bare.
Every consumer on this planet needs to recognize our complacency in the system. The hard truth is, if you’re not hungry, you are benefiting from the oppression of those who are. The Hunger for Justice Series is an opportunity to listen to the stories beyond the grocery aisle in an attempt to cultivate a shared humanity, join in solidarity, and solve this problem together.
We are relying on you to show up, listen, learn and ask questions. Together we will shape the conversation; together we will embark on this journey.
In the words of James Baldwin, “I am saying that a journey is called that because you cannot know what you will discover on the journey, what you will do with what you find, or what you find will do to you.”
We all hunger for something. And until every last billion of us hungers no more, we must hunger for justice.
A GROWING CULTURE
HUNGER FOR JUSTICE
Article written by Julia Mande and Loren Cardeli