COVID-19 pandemic: an opportunity to rethink food systems

In partnership with Slow Food

by Marta Castillo Sánchez, Communications Officer at REVOLVE

20 November 2020 | Reading 8 mins.

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The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting how humanity is both victim and cause of the crises that the global population is facing. All the aspects of the social and economic emergency we are living in are deeply connected to our lifestyles, and to the impact we have on our planet. “The coronavirus must be seen as a biological response of Gaia, our living planet, to the ecological and social emergency that humanity has brought upon itself”, according to Fritjof Capra.

The video interview of the Austrian physicist, economist and writer was released in the framework of Terra Madre Salone del Gusto 2020, the most important event dedicated to good, clean and fair food and small-scale agriculture in the world, organized by Slow Food, the City of Turin and the Region of Piedmont. This year the 13th edition of the event, in light of the recent pandemic, has been developed by Slow Food as a six-month journey, both digital and physical.

COVID-19 brought earlier warnings into real time

Capra emphasized that “during a pandemic, social justice is no longer a political issue of left versus right, but it is an issue of life and death”. However, the effects of the pandemic will resonate after the impact of the virus on our health systems subsides, and social justice then will be more important than ever. “The fate of the poor can no longer be separated from the fate of the rich”, affirmed Capra.

The pandemic has brought to light that we are facing bigger challenges around the world than the spread of the virus. As Capra explained, the Earth is trying to convey life-saving lessons through this pandemic, but there are too many questions in the air waiting for an answer. “Will we have the wisdom and the political will to heed these lessons? And will we apply them to the climate emergency? Will we shift from undifferentiated extractive growth to regenerative qualitative growth? Will we replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources for all our energy needs? Will we replace our centralized energy-intensive system of industrial agriculture with organic, community-oriented, regenerative farming?”

Food Talks, a new format for Terra Madre 2020, are a perfect space to discuss these challenges that the global population is facing and to assess about how food systems should answer to the current crisis. In these ten-minute online talks, writers, economists, philosophers, anthropologists, ecologists, and educators – as well as farmers, herders, fishers and cooks – deal with specific issues related to food systems. They all offer their own vision of the environment, of agriculture and of food – a collective framework of the future we want and need.

Slow meat for a sustainable earth

The livestock sector is one of the main sources of greenhouse gases, generating more polluting emissions than the transport sector. Standard industrial farms in particular have a big impact on the environment for many reasons. For example, a third of the world’s cultivated land is used to grow a billion tonnes of feed, mostly soy and maize, and 23% of the fresh water available on the planet is used for livestock farming.

Continuing to eat meat at the levels of which the West is accustomed to – and which many emerging economies are approaching—is unsustainable. The figures speak for themselves. In recent years, meat consumption has not only remained high in America and Europe, but has grown consistently in China, India, and those countries where a wealthy middle class is emerging along with rapid population growth.

Sarah Frazee (Meat Naturally) showcased this issue during her Food Talk episode underlining that “the consumption pattern is really critical”. Frazee works on the issue of animal farming, aiming to create better market access for African herders and highlighting their fundamental role in restoring degraded ecosystems. The Slow Meat campaign, launched by the Slow Food network, goes in line with what Frazee said. The campaign aims to raise awareness among co-producers about better, cleaner, fairer consumption habits, encourage a reduction of meat consumption, and promote the work of small and medium-scale producers who respect animal welfare.

“It is not always a matter of being vegetarian or vegan. It is about eating the food that it is appropriate for that ecosystem, for that region and ensuring that the farming methods are the ones that are promoting long term sustainability”, affirmed Frazee. Something that could be translated as “eat less meat of better quality”, the motto of the Slow Meat campaign.

Growing flowers to save the world

“Insects pollinate 75% of the crops that we grow in the world. So without pollinators we wouldn’t have most of our fruits and vegetables”, warned Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex, at another episode of the Food Talks of Terra Madre Salone del Gusto. Insect populations are declining drastically across the globe. This phenomenon has accelerated significantly in recent years, particularly in those countries and areas where agriculture is highly industrialized. Goulson, author of several books about pollinator ecology and bumblebee conservation, said that we can all contribute to saving the world through a simple and beautiful act: growing flowers for our nectar-drinking friends.

There is a tendency to look at insects as just pollinators. But they are more than that. They make up the bulk of life on Earth and about two thirds of all known species. They are a significant food source for people in many countries; they are recyclers of dung, dead trees, dead bodies, and almost any organic material; and they help to keep soil healthy and aerated. “There are almost no ecological processes on land or freshwater that do not involve insects”, affirmed Goulson.

The food systems have a major impact on our planet. How we produce, distribute, choose and consume our food leaves an indelible footprint on our planet. Therefore, it is deeply linked to the social and economic emergency we are living in. We should be looking to completely change the way we grow fruits and vegetables. “Agroforestry, permaculture, biodynamic farming or organic farming are examples of fruit growing very successfully but producing healthy food”, explained Goulson.

“We need to work with nature rather than constantly trying to control it and kill it. We need to change and I think the Slow Food movement is a fantastic way to move forward”, Goulson concluded, with a collective call to action. Every year Terra Madre Salone del Gusto gather food communities that work towards this change. The meet up gives a voice to those who refuse to surrender to an industrial approach to agriculture and the standardization of food cultures. The communities that take part in Terra Madre declare that food production must be in a harmonious relationship with the environment, and affirm the cultural and scientific value of traditional practices.

Our food, our planet, our future

The interlinked relationships between these three concepts —food, planet, future— show us how the way we interact with our food, how we produce, distribute, choose and consume it, has major impacts on our planet. This is the theme of the 2020 edition of Terra Madre Salone del Gusto, and is a vision that is more topical than ever before, given the scale of the current crisis, especially as this is more than just a health crisis – but also an environmental, economic and social crisis.

The flagship event of the Slow Food network began in 2004 as a large meeting of people from all over the world, but soon turned into a workshop to experiment the Slow Food philosophy. Its name was chosen in honor of Pachamama, the South American Indian name for the Earth Mother honored by millions of farmers and peasants all over the world.

The meet up developed the most innovative part of the Slow Food philosophy, namely being closer to the earth and to the very fundamentals of food production. Terra Madre has continued to be the beating heart of Slow Food ever since, enabling the movement to spread far and wide.

No way forward without sustainable development

Food is the basis for our subsistence but it is also a huge part of the current climate crisis we are living in. Food systems were already facing a “triple challenge” before the outbreak of the COVID-19. The pandemic has just accelerated and exacerbated the vulnerabilities and inequalities that the system we are living in has on the different ecosystems around the globe. It seems that the earth has sent a warning and it wants us to open our eyes and see what is surrounding us: a planet without enough flowers for the insects to live in and where meat production has become an unsustainable industry that is harming us to satisfy our growing consumption.

“If we can catalyze global leadership for these urgent actions, future historians may conclude that even though COVID-19 had widespread tragic consequences for countless individuals and communities, it may have saved humanity and large portions of the community of life from extinction”, concluded Capra on his Food Talk. Will future historians describe the COVID-19 pandemic as the driver that established a sustainable system? Or will they refer to it as the missed opportunity to save the planet?


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