The Covid-19 pandemic is showing, before our eyes, that industrial agriculture poses an increasing threat – also to human health.
by Florian Blumer, Biovision
For weeks many of us have not been going to the office, picking up takeaway lunches, or going to restaurants in the evening. Suddenly, people have found the time (and the desire!) to cook, bake bread and grow their own vegetables. Many are buying from nearby organic farms again and supporting the organic food store around the corner.
It seems as though the crisis is awakening a primitive human need for a close relationship to our food, a need that has been lost in recent years and decades over the course of the industrialization of food production, the rise of convenience food and the acceleration of everyday life.
The lockdown has deprived the society of many things. We hope to soon be able to visit our friends and relatives again, and that by gradually reopening we will soon be able to move and meet normally in public. However, the thoughtless ways of dealing with food that were once normal are not something to which we hope to return.
A crisis-prone system
The current, predominantly industrial, food system has long been leading into another crisis: it is a major contributor to climate change and has led to a dramatic decline in biodiversity. Conventional industrial agriculture has turned out to be a system that is vulnerable to global crises and increasingly frequent weather extremes that are resulting from climate change. It also leaches the soil and leads to malnutrition and undernourishment. It has not even solved the problem of world hunger. On the contrary: world hunger has been increasing in recent years, and the coronavirus pandemic is likely to make the situation even worse (World Food Programme figures).
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought additional problems to our attention: our proximity to animals, especially for meat consumption, has led the virus transfer from animals to humans. Globalized trade and mobility spread the novel corona virus around the globe in a matter of weeks.
Excessive meat consumption – and the large-scale use of antibiotics in the meat industry – is one of the key factors in the spread of infectious diseases. But it is not the only aspect of industrial agriculture that poses a threat to human health.
Using pesticides leads to resistance
The widespread use of pesticides also leads to resistance. Pests that destroy harvests and spread disease are increasingly adapting to become resistant to frequently used chemical insecticides.
Pesticides are suspected of increasing cancer rates, causing birth defects and developmental disorders in children, and weakening the human immune system, making it vulnerable to parasites. This effect is particularly devastating for millions of small farmers in economically weak countries with poorly functioning health systems.
Finally, large monocultures, as are common in industrial agriculture, promote the spread of diseases – although high biodiversity would contribute to a low infection rate in both humans and animals due to the so-called “dilution effect”.
Rediscovering the value of food
We can only hope that the current crisis helps to rediscover the value of food. Healthy food that does not destroy the foundations of food production is valuable because it helps keep infectious diseases such as Covid-19 at bay – or prevents them from developing in the first place.
Now there is the chance to find a new approach. If people maintain their “lockdown habits”, they will continue to buy their food from the organic farmer within cycling distance, from the organic shop in the village, or even from vegetable cooperatives which provide not only healthy and fairly produced food, but also opportunities to work in the fields and strengthen the relationship to food production.
The Corona crisis has overshadowed the food crisis, but has in no way eliminated it; on the contrary, it has made it even worse. Should we return to an everyday normality in the coming months, we will still be in the middle of a crisis in the food system, with millions of people starving to death and major health risks to us all. Let us tackle this crisis and work on a transformation towards a sustainable, agroecological food system now. The situation does not allow any delay – the time is now.
This text is based on the article “Cette crise nous donne l'occasion de repenser et de panser nos liens à l'alimentation” by Alessandra Roversi, our Sustainable Consumption and Communication Officer in French-speaking Switzerland and published in the newspaper Terre et nature; and on the article “Beyond Meat – the food on your plate and Covid-19” written by Shruti Patel, our Programme Officer for the Farmer Communication Programme.