The coronavirus pandemic crisis is laying bare the current global food system’s vulnerability, which is dominated by industrial agriculture. We may soon again be seeing pictures of half-empty supermarket shelves on the internet: this time not because of hoarding but as a result of interrupted production chains and export bans by various national governments, and a lack of agricultural labourers. The problem will be more marked in the coming months when there will be a shortage of hops, asparagus and other products. How can something be harvested if it has never been sown?
The increasing calls from conservative groups for quick cash injections for farmers to safeguard Europe’s food security have a tempting ring to them but merely reinforce global inequality. We already see the closure of two or three small companies every day in Austria, as they cannot withstand the global competition. Yet smaller farms do not just benefit the environment, with fewer pesticides and fertilisers resulting in the production of healthier food and a more caring approach to nature and resources; they are also an essential factor in improved animal protection due to better livestock farming.
After the crisis is before the crisis
Today’s International Day of Peasants’ Struggle should remind us that something is rotten in our food production. We benefit from exploitative labour and ownership structures, promote agro-industry and large seed companies and put agricultural labourers, indigenous peoples, landless and small-scale family farms under tremendous (price) pressure. Yet small farmers are the backbone of our society, producing 80% of the world’s food.
Farms certainly need prompt support in the crisis. At the European level, this means the advance payment of funding using common agricultural policy (CAP) instruments and tax concessions. But in the long term, we need to refocus and promote sustainable, small-scale and regional agriculture, particularly small-scale farms and mountain farms. There should be no more subsidies based on size; what is needed is an environmental and social palette of assistance for a resistant, sustainably climate-friendly food system with short supply chains and fair production and working conditions for everyone. Only then will our food production and our food be crisis-resistant.