I reposting an article recently written by Sally, an English lady who lives in Dubai and knows a lot about food and wine. Her blog is a pleasure to read and her photos put mine to shame, ha ha. Now is the time to keep our moods positive but now is ALSO the time to question how we eat and drink. Let us look for the silver lining brought about by this nasty Covid-19 and do whatever we can, however little, to make sure our food is provided in a more sustainable manner.
The link between coronavirus and food – what can we do?
To the question ‘Isn’t writing about food frivolous? Aren’t there more important topics?’, I have always said no; what is more important than food and water? The current coronavirus pandemic has laid bare just how vulnerable we are to food-related issues, large and small.
‘It’s not just about getting enough to eat when cracks can appear overnight in food supply chains where control has been handed over to an elite group of large commercial companies, eroding diversity, with little say from Governments. When there is the whiff of a threat panic sets in and the ‘every man for himself’ herd mentality comes into play rapidly, as, among other extreme reactions, people begin to food hoard. The bigger picture when it comes to food is how this affects the planet, the structures of our societies, and even where the virus comes from.
What caused the Coronavirus in the the first place?
Dan Saladino, talking on the BBC Food Programme, says that evidence so far points to a market in Wuhan in which wild animals were brought together and slaughtered. Through them, a virus (originally carried by bats) was transferred along the food chain and into humans. It’s a zoonotic disease and is not the first to infect humanity, but the rapid changes in our food systems mean that it certainly won’t be the last.
Dan interviewed Professor Andrew Cunningham of the Zoological Society of London, an expert on how these diseases spread from animals and into humans. He explained why viruses are now jumping species at a greater and faster rate. Measles is thought to have been a zoonotic disease, and passed from animals when they were domesticated to become a humans-only disease. HIV also originated in wildlife. In our history, the human race has been exposed to relatively few pathogens carried by wild animals.
Our growth in population and greater connectivity (like air travel) means that viruses are now spreading on an unprecedented scale. In the past, when small communities were infected, people either got better or died before infecting others so the virus abated.
On the BBC Food Programme, Dan asked Professor Cunningham to explain more about the original cause of Coronavirus. A newly affluent China has fueled demand for more wild animals and a new trend for eating exotic meat (seen as a delicacy) which was not part of traditional Chinese food culture. Large markets of live wild animals imported from various parts of the world have been collected together like never before, especially in the last decade, says Professor Cunningham. Species are mixing in unnatural conditions, then being slaughtered in the market, with humans congregating in large numbers around them. There is a demand for ‘warm meat’ so people are exposed to blood and other bodily fluids from these animals at the market and when they butcher them at home. The wildlife supply chain from China extends right around the world breaking all the natural barriers that humans have evolved with for millions of years. Ecological and geographical barriers are being smashed by this supply chain.
But it’s not just in Chinese markets where our interaction with bats is increasing, both directly and indirectly, more than in our entire history. Due to food shortages in some parts of the world, bats are being hunted in greater numbers, and, also, we are encroaching into bat habitat.
An example is the industrialisation of pig farms in Malaysia, in the 1990s, which encroached into bat habitat. Fruit orchards were planted in close proximity to the pig farms. The bats would come in and eat from the orchards then drop contaminated fruit into the pig pens and be eaten by the pigs. This is how the Nipah virus was transferred from bats into pigs which led to the eradication of the Malaysian pig industry and the deaths of over 100 people.
The impact of food production on the climate crisis is now recognised more widely. Industrial farming of animals and their gas emissions, industrial agriculture with deforestation, mono-crops and how chemicals are degrading the fertility of soil and killing species such as bees and birds, all effect the planet and the balance of nature.
What hasn’t been discussed widely, is as we change land use (and change the planet), our agriculture becomes more invasive into nature. Coronavirus exposes a further weakness in that system which, according to Professor Andrew Cunningham, is a warning shot. The fatality rate of coronavirus is thought to be 2-3% at this stage, but among other zoonotic diseases, Ebola has a 50% fatality rate, Nipah a 75-90% per cent fatality rate, so, as the Professor says, there is an urgent need to fund the work that needs to be done to stop the next pandemic.
Changes in our food system
In my lifetime I’ve witnessed a complete transformation of how we grow, buy and consume food. I lived in a small village quite near to a town (which had a fishmonger, some greengrocers and one small supermarket). In the village, we had two local shops which sold fresh vegetables available in season, where we shopped little and often. In the winter we relied on root vegetables, brassicas and the like, and orchard fruit such as apples and pears which were stored (naturally wrapped, not in gas-filled environments). Imported fresh goods were limited (bananas and lemons primarily). Spring and summer fruit and vegetables were welcomed as they broke the winter dearth with variety and taste. Food was valued, food waste was minimal, convenience food limited. Fresh milk was delivered by the milkman (reusing glass bottles) and bread by a bread van. Cows from a couple of farms wandered down the road twice a day from surrounding fields to be milked in the milking parlour, their milk was then bottled locally.
It was not all idyllic and undoubtedly this came at a cost, both economically and socially; there were fewer women in the work place and more ‘housewives’ to prepare food from scratch for instance. These were transitional times with WW2 privations still very much in living memory.
This sounds like ancient history instead of just a few decades ago. Choice of food was limited in a way that seems inconceivable now when we can buy anything we want, at any time, from round the world.
However, our supply chains of food have become more centralised and opaque. In the UK, the BSE epidemic demonstrated how the ingredients of cow feed were disregarded in favour of cost-cutting and resulted in a new disease. The horse meat scandal showed that ingredients are difficult to trace and can slip easily into the food retail system.
What can we learn from this?
In a recent video, Russel Brand examines how coronavirus casts a light on the whole structure of our society.
“That we can’t just live in abstract economic systems, just do what we want and limitlessly consume without consequences” he says. “The way that it feels when our cathedrals of consumerism are laid bare, the empty breadless, riceless shelves. And you realise, ‘Oh this is invisibly held together by systems we don’t think about’.”
He quotes Zia Tong, “Everything is filmed today except where our food comes from, where our energy comes from and where our waste goes”.
How can we change things?
It’s very hard to know isn’t it? And easy to be overwhelmed. I do believe that after this coronavirus crisis we will never go back to ‘normal’ – and that will have a much wider impact than whether we can get a tin of baked beans or not. Trying to be optimistic, maybe it’s a good thing as a catalyst for meaningful change, especially relating to food?
This is what I’m going to do, but don’t claim to have the answers:
- Questioning everything we eat. How it was made or raised, it’s impact on the people who made it, the ingredients, where it or the components are from, the way it was produced and the way it got to us. It’s not as easy as boycotting plastic bags – the information around food is, as demonstrated, often misleading or obscure. Consumer power is part of the equation; where we shop, our support of producers, our influence on where things are sourced. It may mean changing what we eat and the way we cook and eat, we may not always get it right, but we have to make the best decisions we can.
- Spreading the word. I consider myself pretty well-informed about the issues around food but the information from the BBC Food Programme about zoonotic viruses chilled me to the core. I’m sure that if it was known more widely it would be the wake-up call that Professor Cunningham says it should be. This is why I wrote this post and will continue to use any channels (in person or online) that I can to influence the people around me.
- Pressuring governments or those in power. It has to be a greater priority. Leaving things to the free-market and in the hands of fewer and fewer powerful companies dedicated to share-holder value and profits will never work. We need the people who we elect to look after our interests to do exactly that – and it will only be achieved if we reassess our food system and the way we treat the planet.
And finally, I believe that the only way to effect real change is by supporting each other. I’d really appreciate your feedback on this – whether you agree or disagree – and if you have recommendations about how we can do something meaningful together.
All the information about the transfer of viruses was from this BBC Food Programme episode with Dan Saladino and Professor Andrew Cunningham, much of it quoted directly.
Coronavirus: What Has It Revealed? by Russell Brand
How long before our soil gives up? Guy Singh-Watson, Riverford