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The Day After: Food

The second installment in an ongoing series analyzing the perils and possibilities of our collective response to COVID-19

Food and AgricultureCOVID-19

Satellite image of circular crop fields in Kansas. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The Day After: Food marks the second installment in an ongoing curated series that asks contributors to imagine the perils and possibilities that will ground our collective response to or emergence from the COVID-19 crisis. The first installment, about animals, can be found here.

This series asks Canada’s leading scholars to respond to questions of human-environment relations to consider our post-COVID future: What opportunities make you hopeful and what risks do you see at the human-nature interface? How can we build an ethic of care for socioecological systems?

These scholars of critical environmental studies have dedicated their professional lives to grappling with questions of environmental conflict, governance and justice—here, we have asked them to turn their reflections toward the public. Together, we hope this contributes to a broad and ongoing discussion on how the COVID-19 crisis can produce visions of the future of human-environment relations, for better or worse.

Our second edition is about food, with contributions from Tabitha Robin (Martens), Tony Weis, Lauren Kepkiewicz, and Elaine Power.

Tabitha Robin (Martens) is a mixed ancestry Swampy Cree researcher, educator, writer, and PhD candidate at the University of Manitoba studying Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the Faculty of Social Work and the Department of Native Studies. She spends much of her time on the land, working with her people, and learning traditional Cree food practices.

Throughout the pandemic, stories of food insecurity have become commonplace. At the same time, there is news of fish being thrown back into the lake, potatoes wasted in the landfill and baby animals being culled because food markets have plummeted. The pandemic has shed light on the inequities and complexities of our food systems. Prior to the pandemic Indigenous peoples experienced food insecurity at rates up to three times the national average. These experiences will intensify as access to transportation, stores, hospitals, and perhaps most importantly clean water, are further destabilized for Indigenous communities. And yet, there is hope. To move beyond the inequities of our food system means we must learn to practice gratitude. We must find ways to give thanks for the gifts of life the Creator has provided. Indigenous peoples have been advocating, unearthing, and enacting processes and practices of Indigenous food sovereignty since time immemorial.

In my Muskegowuk culture, land is a gift. It is, in many ways, the most important gift we have been provided. We carry a responsibility on behalf of the ancestors, in ensuring the future of the land for unborn generations. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the land has remained a constant. Moreover, evidence suggests the earth is beginning to heal. There is hope to be found in this uncertain time but also much work to be done. We must also confront our distrust of the food system that leads to hoarding and food waste by becoming more active and interested in our food systems. From gardening and seed keeping to compost programs and protests to protect our land, the opportunities to thank the land for all it gives abounds. Food represents a give and take relationship. We take, but how do we give?

Tony Weis is associate professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Western Ontario and author of The Ecological Hoofprint The Global Burden of Industrial Livestock.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, it is safe to assume that many Canadians paid little heed to the mounting ecological and health problems associated with the dominant agro-food system. Like other commodities, the social and ecological relations behind our daily encounters with food are largely shrouded in mystery; it is hard to know much about where food comes from and how it is produced due to the increasing consolidation of corporate control at every turn and the shrinking number and growing scale of farms and livestock operations. Problems can also be hard to sense when supermarkets are filled with so much cheap food (without diminishing the considerable level of food insecurity in Canada and the fact that many rely on food banks).

The COVID-19 crisis is cracking the prevailing faith—or stupor—that pervades the dominant agro-food system. Many chronic inequalities and instabilities have suddenly become more apparent, including the brutal conditions in industrial slaughterhouses, the amplification of infectious disease risks in industrial livestock production, the heavy reliance on seasonal farmworkers, the preponderance of low-wage jobs in food services, the vulnerability of long-distance and highly centralized supply chains, the accessibility barriers of ‘food deserts’—most of which have powerful racial as well as class dimensions.

Some responses could well entrench the dominant trajectory. For instance, we can expect corporations to intensify technological innovation geared to displacing labour, from further mechanizing farms and livestock operations to automating food retailing, at the same time as low-wage agricultural and food retail workers continue to be compelled to face highly disproportionate risks. But it is also possible to imagine the current crisis leaving an indelible imprint on how many people think about agriculture and food, and there are glimmers of a new consciousness emerging in such things as a boom in gardening and a growing desire to support local small-scale producers.

As with any systemic crisis, prospects for radical changes are widening, and in order to nourish individual awakenings, there is an urgent need to set out compelling visions of alternative policies and ways of organizing production.

Food sovereignty activists protest outside a secret elite corporate seed conference convened by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Organised by Global Justice Now. London. Photo by Jess Hurd/Flickr.

Lauren Kepkiewicz is a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Geography at the University of Calgary focusing on food sovereignty, settler colonialism, and community-based research and activism.

In the Bow Valley, a place held together by the river that runs through it and rocky slopes that rise on either side, the past weeks have seen emergency food efforts bring together different groups to feed Valley communities. I have been in awe of these collaborations that two months ago would have been unlikely. Perhaps the 60 to 90 percent unemployment rates in some parts of the Valley have jolted many who were previously able to ignore, or remain oblivious to, food insecurity.

Conversations have swirled around Valley residents’ worry for friends and family working in nearby meat packing plants, where workers fear for their lives as plants reopen despite one hosting North America’s largest COVID-19 outbreak linked to a single facility. There has also been growing awareness concerning the vulnerability of Valley communities’ reliance on global food supply chains. Settler colonialism continues to settle this Valley to its maximum, leaving little room or thought to how Valley communities might sustain themselves, as Indigenous nations, such as the Ĩyãħé Nakoda, have done for centuries.

While many of these issues have gained traction during COVID-19, they are not new. Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW) has long called out state violence against migrant workers while groups like La Via Campesina have championed food sovereignty. My hope lies here as well as with groups and communities such as Black Lives Matter and the Unist’ot’en who challenge broader systems of oppression including white supremacy, colonialism, patriarchy, and capitalism—systems that have also been characterized as pandemics. My hope lies in transforming the relationships these structures rely on (both within and beyond food systems), and creating new ways of being (including food systems based in ecologically and socially just relationships) that provide space to enact responsibilities, confront complicities, and honour relationships to one another and the earth.

A migrant agricultural worker in Manitoba. Photo courtesy Menno Simons College.

Elaine Power is an associate professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies and head of the Department of Gender Studies at Queen’s University, and is a founding member of the Kingston Action Group for a Basic Income Guarantee.

Millions of Canadians have been thrown out of work or had their hours dramatically reduced because of the restrictions put in place to control the spread of COVID-19. Although the federal government moved quickly to support un- and underemployed Canadians with the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), over a million Canadians do not qualify. And even many of those on the CERB will find themselves food insecure. This means worrying about having enough money for food; changing the quality or quantity of food eaten, or in the most severe cases, skipping meals and going hungry because of lack of money. Food insecurity is associated with poor health, numerous chronic diseases, increased health care costs and premature death. Income is the only effective remedy.

Even before COVID-19, over 4.4 million Canadians (12.7 percent) lived in food insecure households. The majority of these households had income from employment, but their wages were too low or their hours too few to enable them to escape food insecurity. This constitutes a public health crisis and is appalling in a country as wealthy as Canada.

One solution is to transform the CERB into a permanent income support for all those who need it—a unconditional basic income providing an amount adequate to meet basic material needs for shelter and food. Before COVID struck, the Basic Income Canada Network (BICN) calculated that Canada already collects enough taxes to provide all Canadians with a minimum income of $22,000/year. Under the BICN scheme, progressive tax reform would mean that higher income people would pay proportionately more tax while lower income people would reap the benefits.

Basic income could help solve food insecurity. It could also have many more benefits, supporting entrepreneurs, artists, activists, caregivers, small-scale farmers, gig economy workers and women fleeing domestic violence, breathing new life into local economies. Advocates hope it will become a positive legacy of this painful time.

Jonathan Peyton is an associate professor of geography at the University of Manitoba and author of Unbuilt Environments: Tracing Postwar Development in Northwest British Columbia.

James Wilt is a master’s student in geography at the University of Manitoba and author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk.


Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

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