By Steven Jacobs
As we witness the severe hardship and the terrible loss that this coronavirus outbreak has brought to our shores the question is there, hanging around like a bad odour that just won’t go away.
What has happened to ‘civilisation’? And I’m not just talking about the zoonosis (zoonotic disease is where a pathogen is spread from non-human animals to humans). It isn’t just that the origin of the virus has been linked to food markets.
It’s the inflexibility of our food system and indeed our health system that gives rise to a concern that will carry on long after movement restrictions have been lifted and some sense of normalcy returns.
To date this coronavirus has been diagnosed in approximately two million people and the figure is still climbing.
And our food and health care systems are struggling to cope. People are, understandably, panicking. Supermarket shelves have been emptying faster than they can be restocked. There was a rush to grab stocks of some items and supply logistics could not keep up.
Toilet paper, paracetamol, flour and eggs seem at the top of that list. An odd list that suggests a nation of bakers in home kitchens up and down the length and breadth of the country prepared for results that might involve lengthy sojourns in the bathroom.
But seriously, the gaps on the shelves of some retailers says much more about the just-in-time food distribution system than to any psyche-shift of ourselves or of our friends and neighbours.
As Professor Tim Lang said on a podcast recently, the queen of food systems is logistics. This determines how fast you can restock the shelves for when the customers return the next day.
Of course, this has long been a major hurdle. Moving fresh produce off the farm and to the marketplace in good condition every single day has been a challenge for human societies since we began to gather tribes, and food, together.
While there are still some similarities with how food was grown and traded during earlier times, the differences with how things are done today are stark. So, where did it all start going wrong? How is it that our food system is so brittle?
Since the sixties the price of food has fallen substantially. The average UK citizen spends less than ten percent of their disposable income on foodstuffs. But we have seen housing and utility prices rise to well beyond the reach of many.
Globalised market economics has come between us and our food, and between shoppers and food producers. As food prices have tumbled, other prices shot up. And so, are we really any the richer?
While all this trading has been going on, our natural environment has suffered, terribly. Our health has suffered, terribly. We have more to eat and yet we are not always the healthier for it.
According to data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (the FAO), just under a billion people are hungry and around two billion are overweight. They are all malnourished. Micronutrient deficiency is endemic.
In January last year a report published in the Lancet concluded that much more must be done to tackle obesity, which is a risk factor for poor health and mortality, and is therefore expensive.
But why do we do it to ourselves? What is behind cheap food? It is now clear that market manipulation of food as a tradable commodity has unintended consequences. The Lancet report makes it clear. We need a radical rethink of business models, food systems, civil society involvement, and national and international governance to address the ‘global syndemic of obesity, undernutrition, and climate change’.
Last year, Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething launched an obesity strategy which aims to tackle the problem through making it easier for people to make healthy choices, from childhood to the workplace.
If health care needs consistent support, we’d surely also agree the same is true for food systems. Low-value, high-volume food markets lead to poor health for people, environment and rural economies, and we need to change that.
The changes needed may not make hedge fund investors wealthier, but they will help people and environments become healthier, even in the face of climate and economic shocks.
The Wales Real Food and Farming Conference was founded last year by a small group of people who work in food and farming. I am very pleased and proud to be one of those people.
Our inaugural event held in November 2019 was very well attended and the feedback has been superb. All being well, and depending on virus movement restrictions, we will hold the second WRFFC this November in Aberystwyth.
We are also supporting the Food Manifesto Wales which is a call for people, food producers, food shoppers, policy makers, educators and environmentalists to work together on the basis of shared values. Together, we want to come up with strategies that work.
Wales has the people to help bring together the realisation of a cooperative, collaborative, resilient and healthy society. And we can achieve a truly connected food system. One that works for us, for our environment and for our national economy. But only if we put aside our differences. Only if we are honestly prepared to listen to each other and to work, properly work, together.
Please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us on Twitter at @wrffc20 and be part of that conversation.