The impact of COVID-19 on farming and food production

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Farming in Northern Ireland faces an uncertain period (Hodge, 2019)

Both lives and livelihoods have been put at risk by Covid-19. The disease has spread at a rapid pace and is no longer a regional or national issue, but a global problem. Thus, it calls for a global response. At this stage we don’t know the full impact of the virus, nor how fast it will retreat. What we do know is that it has already significantly affected both food supply and demand. The outbreak has seen the almost complete loss of the food service and hospitality sectors, as well as increasing price volatility in global markets. This has left farm businesses and processors under increased pressure. Although we risk a looming food crisis, if effective measures are taken to protect the most vulnerable and mitigate the pandemic’s impacts across the food system there is no need for the world to panic. Globally, there is enough food for everyone.

While the potential impacts of Covid-19 are vast, we must also see them as an opportunity. Saul Alinsky’s assertion that “in the arena of action, a threat or a crisis becomes almost a precondition to communication”, reminds us that the virus has created for a ‘paradigm changing moment’ for farming and food production. There is a real chance to eradicate unsustainable tendencies and to create a new, nature friendly future for the farming sector. If the opportunity is missed, the impacts that we feel from the current pandemic will simply repeat themselves again and again, as the climate emergency worsens. This article demonstrates how radical change to farming systems are more needed and, indeed, more feasible than ever.

Already, the impact of Covid-19 has led to alarming cases of agricultural produce going to waste as traditional markets dry up. In Northern Ireland (NI), there are fears that up to a fifth of all produce could be stuck on farms if the coronavirus crisis worsens. This is due to problems on food production lines and the closure of many food service businesses, such as, restaurants, hotels and coffee shops. A proposed £100m is needed to efficiently tackle the problem. Although supply lines have so far continued to function effectively, the collapse of services and the limited availability of processing workers presents significant concerns. Dairy, poultry, pigs and beef farms have the potential to be worst affected.

We have heard the term ‘crisis’ being increasingly mentioned by Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots and he has warned that firms and farms could go out of business. Around 100,000 jobs in NI depend on farming and food production, meaning that the lockdown is having a major financial impact. Minister Poots has called for urgent grant support for farming, similar to that given to small businesses and the tourism sector. Thus far, support has come in the form of a self-employment scheme that can offer farmers a taxable grant, worth 80% of trading profits, capped at £2,500 a month. However, it is recognized that this will not support all farms in NI, particularly those struggling to break even. As such, offsetting the impact of coronavirus is likely to require the assistance of the UK government or the EU.

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Poultry farming could be severely affected (Beliaikin, 2018)

The virus has also created a raft of environmental problems associated with agriculture and food production. Due to the cancellation of many farm inspections, there is a risk of failing to upkeep environmental standards. The lack of surveillance has allowed bad practice to go unreported; already we have seen the devastating impacts of numerous wildfires across the countryside, some of which have been started deliberately. Although such actions can decimate ecosystems and habitats, as well as harming the wider environment, perpetrators are unlikely to be punished in current circumstances. Frustratingly, Covid-19 has the potential to seriously disrupt movements toward sustainable farming that had been gaining momentum in recent years. As we are forced to address immediate concerns regarding food security and financial deficits, it is likely that the sustainability embedded in future policy development will be curtailed.

Despite these setbacks, many ‘nature friendly farmers’ interpret the current crisis as an opportunity to change the way that they produce food, and to highlight to the public the importance of supporting local supply chains. By utilizing online services, farms have been able to deliver locally sourced, ethically produced and environmentally sensitive produce directly to the public. We have also seen community vegetable growing schemes, where residents financially subsidize local farms to support those most in need, and on-farm volunteering opportunities arise in recent weeks. According to those involved, such initiatives are helping to change the public’s appreciation of food and farming. Food can only be sustainable and plentiful if it’s produced in harmony with the environment and wildlife.

As the reality of Covid-19 has set in, many of us have reflected on the political implications of the UK’s response. There is a belief that it reveals how another world is possible. The government’s management of the virus appears in stark contrast to their 2017 assertions that there is no “magic money tree” and that continued austerity is paramount for a prosperous future. To the opposite, the urgency and determination of their approach has revealed that both the required resources and financial impetus are available to instigate sweeping, state-wide change in support of the common good. It is crucial that we do not return to ‘business as usual’ post-lockdown. Instead, we must work to create a more sustainable political economy. The last few weeks have shown us that radical change is possible and, in the words of Professor John Barry, “the pandemic has created the possibility for thinking that it is now easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the world”.

All things considered, we find ourselves in a crucial moment for farming in NI and beyond. The decisions that are made in the coming months will define the future of the agriculture sector, potentially changing the very nature of the way that we produce, market and consume food. It is crucial that future legislation and funding is firmly directed towards rewarding the production of healthy and sustainable food, allowing nature friendly measures and local initiatives to become the norm. The Covid-19 emergency has shown us that is not about producing more food to ensure security, but about producing the right food in a way that can restore the environment and support communities. If we fail to address the climate and biodiversity crisis now, long-term food security will be undermined.

Written by

Research assistant at Queen's University Belfast

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