Covid-19

Covid-19 and food systems: relational geographies, food insecurity and relocalisation

By Damian Maye, University of Gloucestershire, UK

Covid-19 is highlighting vulnerabilities in food systems like never before and exposing fundamental moral questions about how we value food. Food is more than an economic commodity – it is a basic human right. Food security for all is the moral goal and central normative purpose of food systems. Covid-19 is highlighting that we have much to do to achieve this goal, during the crisis and beyond.

The scale and impact of the pandemic on food systems was apparent in the early stages of the outbreak. The range and complexity of issues it was highlighting was partly why I decided to create a ‘Covid-19 sustainable food systems learning resource’ in March 2020, to track the multiple impacts over time; and to share positive stories of how food systems were responding, here in the UK and internationally. 

Organising the resources I had collated at that time highlighted the scale and diversity of impacts. Stories included: short-term food chain impacts, epitomised by images of empty supermarket shelves and panic buying; and significant impacts on different farming and agri-food sectors, notably dairy farms and processors, with reports of milk being poured down the drain due to food service closures, and labour shortages in the horticulture sector. In the UK, campaigns to ‘Feed the Nation’  and ‘Pick for Britain’ were launched, akin to the World War 2 ‘Dig for Victory’ food security campaign.

Other food system impacts were notable too, including:

In this blog, I share some reflections emerging from the pandemic, using the resources from the Covid-19 sustainable food systems webpage and research for a new textbook, Geographies of Food.

By way of context, it is important to emphasise that ‘crisis’ is an increasingly common feature of agri-food systems, including a series of ‘food scares’ and disease outbreaks. Examples in the UK include BSE or ‘Mad Cow Disease’ in the 1980s and 1990s, Foot and Mouth Disease in 1967 and 2001, and the ‘Horsegate’ scandal, which affected European food chains in 2013. In Geographies of Food, we map the contours of another food system crisis: the 2007-08 global spikes in food prices and the ensuing financial crisis. As with Covid-19, these ‘events’ exposed systemic vulnerabilities in food chains, highlighting complex and often ‘hidden’ relations with other socio-economic and ecological systems, such as global finance in 2007-08.

Photo Credit: Caitlin Hafferty

Food geographers and analysts use the ‘food system’ to emphasise relations, connecting how we grow, distribute and retail food (the food chain) to wider environmental, social, economic and political systems. These relationships are evident in the impacts and responses to Covid-19. In this blog I emphasise how a geographical perspective, can help to understand these relationships. It shows how the Covid-19 pandemic is exposing food system vulnerabilities that are not always about the food system per se. Food system relations expose wider geographical and structural inequalities in economy and society. The process of mapping food system relations thus asks fundamental questions about power and inequality, as well as stories of hope, possibility and new futures.

Covid-19 and food systems geographies: four themes

To illustrate Covid-19 food system geographies, I have selected four themes. The first theme is relational geography. In one of the early articles about Covid-19 by Laura Spinney, the idea of “relational geography” was employed to explain why the source of the original outbreak in China was not simply a “wet market” in Wuhan. Human geographers use this term to understand complex relationships between people, places and food, including the agency of ‘non-humans’ (microbes, animals, nature). It was intriguing to see it employed in a newspaper article about the origins of Covid-19. The article, drawing on Wallace’s Big Farms Make Big Flu, argued Covid-19’s origins were complex. Crucially, wider structural factors were responsible, including the impacts of industrial agriculture and deforestation, forcing small-scale farmers off their land and into “exotic meat trading”. This forced rural livelihoods strategy increased human exposure to zoonotic diseases and materialised through coronavirus as a global pandemic (i.e. relational, networked).

The second theme is food security, which is having significant Covid-19 impacts on food systems at multiple scales: global, national, regional, community, household, individual. At a global scale, data shows very alarming food security impacts. FAO analysis of an anticipated global economic recession triggered by Covid-19 predicts an increase of 14.4 million (to 80.3 million) undernourished people in net food-importing countries, and most of this increase would come from low-income countries. Women and children will be the most impacted, not only during but also after the virusWorld Food Programme data estimates that 130 million people are at risk of suffering acute hunger by the end of 2020 due to Covid-19, doubling the current number (135m) already suffering acute food insecurity. The economic and food security impacts of Covid-19 are likely to be more significant than the disease itself in the world’s poorest regions.

At a national scale – such as UK-wide – food security is also a major concern. The first few weeks of the crisis exposed just-in-time supply chain vulnerabilities. Food retail has adapted since then. However, there are food sufficiency concerns raised by the crisis, with national self-sufficiency about 66% overall.  This is much lower for some foods, particularly vegetables and fruit, many of which we currently import from Europe, notably the Netherlands and Spain. Food security is likely to feature prominently in the National Food Strategy and this must include community and household food security. During the crisis, certain communities and groups have been very vulnerable to food poverty. The Food Foundation You Gov panel surveys reveal, on each occasion, that millions of households in the UK are struggling to feed themselves. In their May 2020 report nearly five million adults in the UK (4.9 million) (9%) were experiencing food insecurity and 1.7 million (12%) children live in these households. The survey showed too that four million adults were borrowing money and ethnic minorities were most at risk of food poverty. 

In rich countries like the UK, food insecurity is most acute at the individual, household, group or community scales. Covid-19 exposes these underlying social inequalities in so-called ‘rich countries’ (as these data from Canada show). We call this ‘Food Insecurity Amidst Wealth’. Covid-19 food insecurity reinforces why food security is not a simple supply and demand equation, linked to deeper systemic structural inequalities. In other words, food security is not about food availability per se, but underlying issues associated with poverty, unemployment, social exclusion and austerity.

Rosalind Sharpe and Kelly Parsons call for better co-ordination of food policy at multiple scales to address these problems. This requires the government to govern and not to devolve responsibility primarily to local charities, food banks and food partnerships, who are doing outstanding work, but cannot do it on their own. It also means giving vulnerable people and communities a greater sense of empowerment as part of a ‘right to food’ approach to food insecurity. Here in the UK, and other minority countries such as the US and Canada, there are strong arguments for better basic income support to help families through Covid-19, not charity and market-based ‘free food’ solutions.

From a relational geographies perspective, this is about forms of responsibility and social justice that combine individual actions with relations and actions at the structural and state level. It requires what Iris Young calls ‘distributed responsibility’. This links to the third theme, agri-food labour and workers’ rights. In the immediate weeks of the crisis, a key food security concern was the lack of workers to pick fruit and vegetables, with dire warnings that food would rot in fields and be wasted. It exposed a ‘hidden’ economic and social geography of agri-food labour and the dependency of these supply chains on migrant workers e.g. seasonal workers from Eastern Europe to farms in Kent and Lincolnshire to pick fruit and vegetables. This work is physically demanding, skilled and specialised but also undervalued. As the crisis has unfolded, disease ‘hot spots’ have also emerged in food chains, particularly in meat processing factories, revealing the nature of working practices and the hidden costs of producing cheap meat (especially poultry and pork).

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

Industrial agriculture creates highly specialised and concentrated geographies of production and supply. These integrated chains have been very vulnerable to breakdown in the Covid-19 crisis. Some analysts argue that global food chains have adapted well to the crisis, but a wider multi-dimensional assessment of food chain performance, especially social and ethical impacts, throws this assessment into serious question. 

In response to these weaknesses, the fourth theme is the relocalisation of food systems. There is growing consensus that localising and shortening food chains is critical to building food system bioregional resilience and ecological embeddedness. This echoes calls made in 2001 in the UK in the aftermath of Foot and Mouth Disease. We are already seeing amazing work being done by local food chains to respond to the demand to relocalise production.  At a strategic level, this requires building regional supply chain infrastructure, in the shape of smaller-scale abattoirs, food hubs and so on. Geographers have examined food relocalisation strategies for the past 20 or so years and have consistently called for these types of initiative to build resilience in food systems. At the same time we must not forget the more critical literature on local food systems, which reminds us not to fall into the ‘local trap’, instead fostering a ‘reflexive localism’.

In a post-Covid-19 food world, this is about prioritising distributed forms of food system justice that support food partnerships and coordinated governance at local, regional, national and trans-local scales to address urban and rural social inequalities. We have much to learn and much to do.


About the author: Damian Maye is Professor of Agri-Food Studies at the Countryside and Community Research Institute, University of Gloucestershire. He researches geographies of food system sustainability. @DamianMaye

The cover image is credited to: Camel CSA (Cornwall)

Suggested further reading

Hinchliffe, S., Bingham, N., Allen, J. and Carter, S. (2016). Knowing Birds and Viruses – from Biopolitics to Cosmopolitics. In Pathological Lives (eds S. Hinchliffe, N. Bingham, J. Allen and S. Carter). doi:10.1002/9781118997635.ch8

Sonnino, R., Marsden, T. and Moragues‐Faus, A. (2016), Relationalities and convergences in food security narratives: towards a place‐based approach. Trans Inst Br Geogr, 41: 477-489. doi:10.1111/tran.12137

Hopma, J. and Woods, M. (2014), Political Geographies of ‘Food Security’ and ‘Food Sovereignty’, Geography Compass, 8, 773– 784, doi:10.1002/gec3.12163

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