COVID-19: fixing our relationship with food and nature is more important than ever

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Europe’s relationship to food and nature must not be put to one side because of the COVID-19 crisis, it should be front and centre in the recovery, argues Sini Eräjää. [Tim Lucas/Flickr]

Europe’s relationship to food and nature must not be put to one side because of the COVID-19 crisis, it should be front and centre in the recovery, argues Sini Eräjää.

Sini Eräjää is an agriculture and forest campaigner at Greenpeace’s European Unit

The COVID-19 outbreak is playing havoc with Europe’s food and farming systems. It’s clear that governments and the EU must help farmers, farm workers and food producers – to ensure everyone has access to healthy food and that people don’t lose their livelihoods – but what that help should look like is already a dangerous flashpoint.

In the turmoil – distribution problems and worries about the availability and safety of workers – the agricultural industry has called on governments and the EU to buy up and store overproduced products like milk and beef to bolster the big players in the sector.

Some politicians have also called for a weakening of environmental standards and a loosening of rules on farming subsidies. The industrial farming sector and its political allies also want to delay the European Commission’s Farm to Fork strategy and the EU’s biodiversity protection plans, with short-sighted claims that any further moves to protect the environment will be harmful to the farming sector.

Any rescue package for the sector, the EU’s Farm to Fork plan and common agricultural policy, must make our food and farming system more resilient to new shocks, and must not invite more crises. The underlying causes of outbreaks like COVID-19 are deeper than just the trade in exotic animals in faraway markets. In responding to this pandemic, ignoring the urgent need to fix our relationship with nature and how we produce food would be extremely foolish.

To stop future outbreaks we need to stop encroaching on nature and end factory farming

COVID-19 is not an isolated incident, but the latest in a long line of zoonotic diseases – those that jump from animals to humans – like SARS, H1N1 (swine flu), avian flu, Ebola, Zika and even HIV/AIDS.

When industries destroy forests and other ecosystems to exploit more land and resources, they drive wild animals further out of their habitats and increase opportunities for infectious diseases to transmit to humans. Researchers estimate that 31% of the outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases are linked to forest and ecosystem destruction – including HIV, Ebola, and Zika. The biggest driver of global forest destruction is industrial agriculture, mainly for the production of meat, dairy and animal feed for these industries.

While the current pandemic doesn’t appear to be directly linked to industrial animal farming, the emergence and spread of other deadly infectious diseases has been. Industrial farming, where many genetically similar animals are crammed together, creates perfect breeding grounds for viruses to adapt and find new hosts, increasing their spread. This remains a major risk factor for future outbreaks.

Build resilient food systems to guarantee healthy diets, even in a crisis

Disruptions at borders have exposed the dependence of the current food system on free movement of seasonal workers and on access to global markets. It turns out that European farmers, in particular the biggest and most industrialised ones, are not just grazing cows on the field and selling cheese nearby, but are heavily dependent on imports of feed for their animals, and on exporting their produce to far-flung markets.

Instead of further investing in highly globalised supply chains of bulk-produced food, we need to start moving towards local, sustainable and resilient food systems. Systems that are not only focused on producing more food – and more animal feed – but on integrating food production with the health of people and the planet, while protecting workers and ensuring a fair price for farmers.

The lesson of the pandemic: listen to the science, and act

Most of the world is now taking unprecedented measures to halt the spread of the COVID-19 virus, following warnings from scientists of the dreadful costs of inaction. Meanwhile, we remain painfully aware of the fact scientists have also warned that unmitigated climate breakdown would unleash an even greater catastrophe. But governments have taken nowhere near the level of action required.

Animal farming is a major cause of climate breakdown, accounting for between 12% and 17% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions. There is growing scientific consensus on the need to reduce the excessive consumption and production of meat, dairy and eggs to combat this – including studies from the IPCC, the EAT-Lancet commission and the RISE foundation.

We must also heed the warnings from scientists here, and build a food system that doesn’t contribute to climate breakdown and ecological collapse – like the current one does – and is more resilient to the climate impacts that we know are now unavoidable.

The EU and national governments must act

The EU must not pour crisis rescue money into industrial farming, benefiting the 1% of European farmers who already get a third of subsidies under the EU’s common agricultural policy, and bankrolling factory farming that puts us at more risk of pandemics. Any crisis funds should protect small farmers and farm workers at risk, not line the pockets of the biggest players.

The EU should make radical reductions in meat and dairy an explicit goal in its upcoming Farm to Fork plan. It should also write new laws to ensure that products sold in Europe – meat, dairy, animal feed, timber, palm oil – are not linked to the destruction of nature or violations of people’s rights.

Europe’s relationship to food and nature must not be put to one side because of the COVID-19 crisis, it should be front and centre in the recovery.

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