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

Updated: May 19, 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.” [3]

With covid, the consequences of ‘progress’ in food dumping, agro-exporting, and seed commercialization in undermining local food integrity are now firmly on the radar. Some states and public discourses are revaluing short supply chains and local provisioning as export restrictions shrink the international food trade. Monocultures and factory farms are likely ill-suited (in both senses of the term) to adjusting to the new moment.[4] Reclaiming ‘sovereignty’ under these circumstances may be a first (formal) step towards substantive revaluation of ‘foods from somewhere,’ as democratic, ecological and public health projects. Meanwhile, multilateral cooperation to address immediate deficits across a grossly unequal world is imperilled by problematic nationalist politics, an international leadership vacuum, and WHO scapegoating.

One alternative crisis perspective is that the global food system “is not broken…It is working precisely as a capitalist food system is supposed to work: it expands constantly, concentrating wealth in a few, powerful monopolies, while transferring all the social and environmental costs onto society.” [5] And this power complex is not disappearing so quickly. As we speak the FAO appears to be junior partnering with the World Economic Forum (WEF) to stage a new World Food Summit in 2021, with the President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) as Special Envoy. This is all reminiscent of what Naomi Klein calls the ‘shock doctrine’ at work.[6] In this event, hundreds of civil society organizations warn that the WEF has “emerged as the key space for decision makers and corporate leaders to roll out initiatives around global public goods – water, food and climate… seeking to shape the future of a wide range of services.” [7] And members of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) have noted: “concerns that the real goal of the Summit was to manufacture a new consensus, to put business-led solutions back in the driving seat, and to shift the locus of food systems governance away from the CFS.” They propose rebuilding legitimacy into the process via three steps:

  • Turn the ‘Food Systems Summit’ into an inclusive ‘World Food Congress,’

  • Use the process to re-center food systems governance on the CFS, ending fragmentation of food governance, and

  • Put agroecology and food sovereignty firmly on the table. A UN Framework Convention could be a concrete outcome.[8]

[1] [2] [3] [4] Eg: [5] Eric Holt-Giménez, Can We Feed the World Without Destroying It? Polity, 2019, p. 89. [6] “If you’re a hard-core free-market economist, you understand that when markets fail it lends itself to progressive change much more organically than it does the kind of deregulatory policies that favor large corporations. So the shock doctrine was developed as a way to prevent crises from giving way to organic moments when progressive policies emerge.” [7] [8]

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