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COVID-19 pandemic has affected food security and sustainability

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Permaculture practice has appeared to increase in light of the COVID-19 pandemic (image by Local Food Initiative via Flickr)

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation says that COVID-19 could seriously impact the world's food security as it affects both supply and demand.

There is a greater concern the pandemic will cause a global recession and that millions of people worldwide will suffer from chronic hunger and a loss of livelihood. While the situation in Australia isn’t that dire, we have seen our share of panic buying, purchasing restrictions and business closures. These patterns could very well return in the near future, especially in Victoria.

But there’s one outcome of COVID-19 that was unexpected: people are showing an interest in becoming more food self-sufficient and it coincided with the lockdowns. It appears the pandemic has made people turn to self-sufficiency and sustainability to compensate for supply shortages.

My investigation starts with Brisbane resident Jourdain Hiini who has been practicing a type of self-sufficiency know as permaculture on his suburban property for twenty years. Permaculture uses a whole-system design approach to create sustainable food networks and can be implemented on a small, agricultural, or metropolitan scale. Permaculture is a common technique for increasing food self-sufficiency.

Hiini is a chef, with a self-described "green thumb" and a passion for permaculture. He first became interested in this method at twelve when he watched an SBS documentary by Bill Mollison about urban permaculture.

Hiini said:

"It really resonated with me. My mum had always grown vegetables at home and my best friend next door… had a mini farm in their backyard as well. It just made sense to me, even at that age."

He also visits the Northey Street City Farm, a permaculture demonstration site located on a floodplain, five minutes away from the city centre.

Northey Street Farm was created as an open green space that educates the public about permaculture and sustainability. Hiini says he is "very lucky" to have this demonstration site so close to home.

As a dedicated member of the Brisbane permaculture community, Hiini has noticed people showing more interest in permaculture since the COVID-19 lockdowns came into effect.

Hiini describes "a huge increase" in the number of people participating in online and social media groups:

"The groups I belong to have so many people asking for advice and ideas."

He goes on to say that the increasing interest isn’t restricted to the online world:

"A lot of my friends as well have been asking me for advice. People who have never grown anything in their lives."

When I ask what he thinks the reason is for this increased interest, his answer is clear:

"I think seeing the shelves bare at Coles and Woolworths caused a lot to realise how fragile our food supply is. Permaculture offered them a solution that gives them the tools to be more self-sufficient."

This growing interest in sustainability appears to be nationwide. I found the same trends were being observed in Western Australia as well.

Permaculture expert and WA resident Charles Otway says he has also seen an increasing interest in the field since the isolation started.

Otway is very experienced with permaculture, having practiced it for more than fifteen years. Today, Otway owns a farm in Pemberton, where he runs his permaculture business Terra Perma Design. Since the onset of COVID-19, Otway says online permaculture Facebook groups such as Permaculture Perth have recently doubled in size. He describes this as "a process that may have taken ten years otherwise"

Otway believes the panic buying sparked this interest:

“I guess what COVID has done is make people realise where food comes from and the dangers of the scarcity of food in a supermarket. If everyone goes in it disappears quickly.”

Otway believes permaculture gives a sense of self-sufficiency, "because permaculture is all about homesteading, growing your own food and storing your own food". he says.

He smiles and adds:

"And being sensitive to the needs of being in lockdown, I think a lot of people have seen it as need, not a want or a hobby."

With seeing the obvious rise in interest, I was starting to wonder how places that are already self-sufficient are handling the pandemic. That’s why I decided to speak with the Director of the Vermont Farm to Plate Network, Jake Claro, about his experience with the COVID-19 disruptions.

Claro describes the situation in Vermont, U.S., as "sort of odd", saying "it feels like we’re in a bubble". He says the state of the Vermont food system is "very good" even with the impacts of coronavirus on their business and agricultural sectors and attributes this stability to the Farm to Plate Network.

The Farm to Plate Network was first developed over a decade ago with the goal of creating a resilient and sustainable localised food system that supported the Vermont community.  Farmers involved in the network produce and distribute their own healthy, sustainably grown food to the wider community and provide employment in the food and farming sector of Vermont through the linked Sustainable Jobs Fund.

One of the more important aspects of the Farm to Plate Network is the relationship between the community and the small businesses that grow and supply a diverse range of agricultural products.

Claro explains how those relationships have been important for the community through the COVID-19 crisis.

He says:

"Certainly, the Farm to Plate Network that we have built over the last decade has made these relationships a lot stronger. I think our local food system has shown a level of response and flexibility in these circumstances to adapt and adapt quite quickly."

That’s not to say that Vermont hasn’t been affected at all by COVID-19. Claro describes how large retail stores have experienced shortages and simplified their supply chains. He looks disappointed when he describes how their restaurant industry has been impacted.

Claro remarks:

"There are projections saying that anywhere between 25-50% of restaurants that have closed because of COVID will stay closed. It’s something that we’re concerned about and supporting them in this difficult time."

But the greatest impact has been on the conventional dairy industry. Claro explains that dairy is an important business in Vermont and with the loss of school, institutional, and restaurant sales, dairy producers have taken a substantial hit. “It was an industry that was already facing a lot of challenges, and then this demand shortage just further compounded a lot of those factors".

Luckily, there’s a COVID-19 state relief bill that will hopefully help the dairy industry cope through these uncertain times.

Claro was meant to visit Western Australia earlier this year to speak about his experiences with establishing Farm to Plate at the Great Southern Food for Thought Festival (FFTF), which was postponed because of the lockdown.

FFTF was created in 2015 to support the transition of the WA food system towards one that is "regenerative, fair, inspirational and democratic", says the event’s creator Evelyn Lee Collin.

Every year, Food for Thought promotes and celebrates regional WA food culture and increases the community’s awareness of food security and localised food systems.

In light of the objectives of FFTF, I asked Collin what her thoughts on the COVID-19 supply chain disruptions are.

She told IA: 

"Transport interruptions highlight how important localised food systems are. The case for food system change has been urgent and overwhelming for many, many years now. I hope the COVID-19 pandemic will galvanise broad community support."

Collin sees the role of Food for Thought as being impactful on the community and she is devoted to the cause. "I know my work contributes to a better world. That makes me feel inspired and energised everyday", she says.

I find myself wondering what the future of the Australian food system will look like after the disruptions of COVID-19. The growing interest in food self-sufficiency and local food networks is inspiring to see.

Perhaps, the pandemic will create a transition towards a supportive and communal food system, like those practiced in Vermont and epitomised in the Food for Thought Festival.

Eleanor Beidatsch is a disability and environmental rights activist, and a science journalist. 

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