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COVID-19 Implications on our 'Broken Food System' [by Philip McMichael]

Updated: May 18, 2020

Professor of Global Development, Cornell University, US

Covid-19 is exposing what many are now calling our ‘broken food system,’ as global supply chains break down, intensifying food deficits. Covid is exposing the vulnerability of food import-dependency. At the end of 2018, the Inter-Academy Partnership (involving 130 national academies of science and medicine) reported on what they identified as a ‘broken global food system,’[1] given rising public health failures and obesity rates, and ecosystem degradation. While covid has revealed the fragility and ill-health of the so-called food system, it also has disclosed what is invisibilized by a hegemonic ‘global food system’ discourse. And that is local and/or domestic food systems.

As we know, only about a fifth of food is traded across borders, while there are multitudes of local/nested food systems. What has been broken for some time is the integrity of local and regional food-producing cultures many of which nevertheless still feed the majority world, under duress. A quarter center ago at the 1996 World Food Summit La Vía Campesina made this point in politicizing corporate rhetoric feeding the world a neoliberal vision of ‘food security,’ to be managed by transnational firms working global breadbaskets. An alternative, ‘food sovereignty’, now gaining currency under present exigencies, was precisely what LVC and allies across the agrarian and NGO world identified as threatened by this trans-national ‘system.’ Their intervention warned of the inherent damage to farming systems embedded in diverse landscapes in North and South, from standardized agricultural technologies imposed over lands, and globalists proclaiming a discourse of progress and plenty.

Such technologies practice dispossession by accumulation – undermining and devaluing cultural practices and knowledges. This practice consummates a world-historical narrative of development built on racism and abyssal thinking: where what is made visible is at the expense of what is rendered invisible: indigenous peoples, migrant farm labor,[2] or farming systems that appear to belong to ‘the past’. In this vein, the new US ambassador to the FAO, Kip Tom, recently railed against a growing sentiment among UN member countries, and the FAO itself with its 2019 HLPE report on Agroecological and Other Innovative Approaches, that such policy recommendation “did not share the basic values and core assumptions on which we operate here in the United States [and is] an explicit rejection of the very idea of progress.”