The COVID-19 Crisis Should be the Time to Rethink Food and Farming Models

14 Apr 2020

“The problem of the global COVID-19 pandemic is often related to the market of ‘exotic’ meat, but the truth is that the model that allows the emergence of these diseases is the intensive model itself much practiced in European countries, in the United States and even in Brazil,” says Glenn Makuta from Slow Food Brasil to Bom Gourmet, a Brazilian magazine specialized in gastronomy and business. In the interview, Makuta talks about food production, food markets, live meat trade, and what we should learn from this global pandemic and worldwide lockdowns. 

The Chinese population’s consumption of beef was less than 11 pounds a year in the 1980s. Today that number is around 133 pounds, and in countries like the USA, it exceeds 220 pounds per person. When we look at the recent pandemics, we immediately associate them with the exotic meat markets. However, the exploitation of the land for cattle raising, puts us closer and closer to the habitat of wild animals, too. How important is it to review our current food production systems as a health security measure?

Reviewing food production systems is essential for promoting healthy eating, with products from family and peasant agriculture ensuring access for all. The massifying and standardizing model is the cause or incubator of many of the social, environmental and food problems we face today. 

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It is common to relate the problem to the market of ‘exotic’ meat because it is something different from our reality, which makes this view biased, even more, if associated with the discourse of war on viral diseases as has been done in many channels of communication, inducing the search for a causative enemy. The truth is that the model that allows the emergence of these diseases is the intensive model itself (according to the thesis of Rob Wallace, author of ‘Big Farms Make Big Flu’), much practiced in European countries, in the United States and even in Brazil, here mainly with giant caged chicken farms. 

The current industrial model is marginalizing the smaller productions that are being swallowed by the large productions that aim at all costs to spend less and produce more, resulting in monotonous genetics that provide such characteristics to the detriment of diversity, taste, health, quality. With this, different and unthinkable practices (or which were unthinkable until a not too distant past) are gradually becoming natural in small or medium-scale productions, such as the compulsive use of antibiotics, the confinement of large numbers of animals in very restricted spaces, the deprivation of the natural behaviors expected from these animals, animal health criteria that aim at survival in extremely hygienic conditions since small problems that arise can take disastrous proportions. 

Effective and ecologically adequate public policies are essential to promote changes in this production model, which in turn would promote the food and genetic sovereignty of small producers over the production.

Today we know that wet markets in cities like Wuhan serve much more as a way of offering food with a supposed medicinal and invigorating effect. But in other regions of Africa and Latin America, we also have these types of markets, also linked to a food need. Does extinguishing this type of trade mean ending important sources of food and cultural heritage? Or do you believe that the exotic meat trade should be banned completely for food security reasons?

No doubt it is difficult with a western look, about a culture quite different from ours, to say what another country should do. To say that would be frivolous and colonialist. In fact, these markets are vital for the livelihood and food and nutritional security of millions of family farmers, traders, and consumers. Still, there seems to be a fetishization and mercantilization of the consumption of wild meats, and it is not possible to generalize that this is a habit of all the people of the largest human population on Earth.

But by recapitulating a little, we have a boost for this type of production in very recent history. The market model to which these products have been adapted is undoubtedly much more harmful than the products themselves. Scientific evidence published in the Lancet indicates the possibility that the Wuhan market was not even the origin of contagion in humans or that there could have been more than one origin, which makes it even more difficult to condemn this type of practice. 

In Latin America, especially in countries that share part of the Amazon Forest, we have the “live meat” trade (umid markets) and also an extensive battle for occupation of the forest in favor of cattle raising. How could communities benefit from the forest’s food production potential in a responsible and safe way?

Brazilian meat production is among the main commodities produced and exported by the country, which is why the economic and political power of the sector is gigantic. However, if we evaluate the various environmental, social, cultural, tax and public health costs, to stick to just a few aspects, we have enormous negative externalities that are totally neglected and that outweigh the economic gains that the sector may eventually contribute. 

Even in the situation of China’s wild meat markets, we have the logic of expansion over primary forests, both for expansion of the agricultural frontier and in the incursions to search and capture wild specimens for commercialization, which increase the flow of people and other animals, putting them in very close contact. This together with mass confinement are ideal conditions for the incubation of the most diverse viruses, allowing the overflow of diseases from one species to another, as was the case with the new coronavirus.

The solution already defended and practiced by many is the maintenance of the forest standing. This is how, for millennia, food in abundance has been supplied to human beings. As long as it is well managed it can continue to offer food as an indispensable forest by-product for the people who live there. However, even with adequate management, one of the greatest challenges in the Amazon region is the distances, with very complex and costly logistics. Hence, it is important to strengthen cooperatives and commercialization centers of family agriculture in order to overcome such difficulties. Furthermore, adequate public policies that guarantee the Human Right to Adequate Food, foreseen in our constitution, are also essential to mitigate such costs, which could come, for example, in the form of subsidies and tax waivers and other several facilities granted to economically dominant sectors.

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The deforestation activities, promoted by agribusiness sectors (together with logging and mining) will, in a few years, bring enormous losses to the sector itself, collapsing the rainfall regime in the Midwest and Southeast regions of the country, which are quite expressive in agricultural production. Much is said in the Amazon in terms of deforestation, but this is also a harsh reality in one of the oldest biomes on the planet, the Cerrado, which also suffers severely from the impacts of this productive sector and does not have sufficient ecological condition to regenerate itself. Even so, projects such as the Matopiba – an expansion of the agricultural frontier over the Cerrado in the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí, and Bahia – continue at full speed, devastating all socio-biodiversity there. Brazil is the most megadiverse country on the planet, and culturally we learned from an early age not to give much value to it, and therefore we often lose an infinity of life forms long before knowing its potentialities. 

Do you see another way of consumption, a middle ground between these two types of food culture? A plant-based diet is the only solution, for example? I would like to know if you could list some initiatives that you consider essential or relevant to introduce a new form of protein consumption to the world.

No doubt meat production and consumption need to be drastically reduced. Family farming and agroecology are good examples of the possible and necessary alternative of how to produce, socially organize, market and give access to diversified foods, mostly vegetable products but also meat and meat products. Much of the supply is already carried out by family agriculture and small and medium-scale agricultural entrepreneurs, many of whom end up using the technological package promoted by the chemical and seed industry for lack of technical assistance that seeks to eliminate dependence on these inputs. 

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The solution would not be a diet based exclusively on vegetables, but one based on biodiversity (“biodiversity-based diet”). When one has a biodiverse production model, there is less occurrence of diseases in production, less consumption of inputs, more labor employed, more nutrient ingested, shorter marketing circuits, respect for seasonality. This way we start to reconnect with the cycles and limitations of nature, which we would find difficult at first, but would learn to understand and integrate, helping increase our health and resilience and also that of productive systems. 

Every city has family farmers, agro-ecologists, small-scale and artisan producers in its surroundings. Generally, they are the solution we have close to us, but they are not always easily accessible because they do not have structured marketing channels. 

In times of pandemic, with home deliveries on the rise, groups and cells of responsible consumption have become an important strategy to maintain the city’s supply and income in the countryside, and thus now we see the invisible: the value of those who produce the food we eat three times a day.

We have already talked about the spread of new viruses, but can quarantine itself also teach us any lessons about how we eat? I’m talking about local consumption, encouraging regional products and small producers. Can this global episode mean a total change in the global consumption habit?

There are many realities of quarantine, from people who are in a family or community structure where there is mutual support between people, to those who are confined in tiny apartments in metropolises, or from the reality of the peripheries where it is not possible to properly carry out quarantine and hygiene recommendations. The food possibilities are of all nature and those who do not know how to cook and do not have anyone with this aptitude in the nearest social circle tend to worsen their diet. Of course, if you have culinary skills and are willing you can learn a lot and if this is your case, you need to find out more about what you eat when you eat. Eating can be an ongoing educational process where you can learn new things at any time. And in this sense, expanding the look beyond the food itself, and thinking more widely about where it comes from, who and how it is produced, and what is the impact on health and the environment are important reflections that this moment can enhance for some specific audiences.

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More time at home can mean more time to cook. However, delivery services are being exhaustively requested. Do you believe that the pandemic can also teach us a lesson in this regard? What are we not seeing?

Without a doubt, this is a unique opportunity in recent history, where the most privileged classes are quarantined and having to deal with a homely daily life that many people were not prepared for or used to. If in fact, we can take advantage of it to improve food, it will be possible to say only retrospectively. The truth is that seeing the information about food trends, many people are turning to home food applications (which are often non-healthy foods) and ultra-processed foods (which are definitely bad for your health), which are usually untraceable foods. So we need to join forces so that the consumption of fresh food produced by family farmers contributes to the long-term structuring of distribution chains, and that the habit of getting closer to producers strengthens ties and becomes perennial. The change that was impossible may become inevitable in the coming weeks. It is up to each person and the community to strengthen so that these learnings are not occasional, if in fact, we can consolidate all this, we will have a slightly more promising future ahead.

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