Food For Thought As We Ponder Our Return to Normal

Getting back to normal suggests returning to a system that values the wrong things. Nowhere is this more evident than in our food chain.

Sean McCabe20/04/2020

Around the world, all but those workers essential to the functioning of critical services are sitting at home waiting for a return to “normal”. 

But, what does it mean to get back is normal? And is it really where we want to be?

Normal for the past three decades has meant increasing inequality, diminishing community life and unsustainable consumption practices.

The symptoms of a system that prioritises economic growth over all else can be seen across many areas of life, but perhaps no more so than in one of our most essential services – the production of our food.


Low-pay and essential work

Today, among the heroes of the hour are the hard working retail workers ensuring that our shelves are stacked in the large multiples.  Yet retail workers are among the lowest paid of all sectors in our society. Based on CSO figures, about 70% of all essential workers earn below the average Irish wage of approximately €38,000.

Meantime, profitable retail chains will continue to extract wealth from producers and customers and direct it towards shareholders. Over the past 12 weeks grocery sales in Ireland reached €2.8 billion, with March being the biggest sales month ever recorded.

As supermarkets thrive, pressure has been heaped on food producers in Ireland and globally. Last year, less than a third of cattle and sheep farms in Ireland were considered economically viable and capable of paying farmers at the minimum wage or above for their labour. Recent dairy production and expansion has performed better economically but relies on exporting 90% of produce to global markets which comes with inherent risks to supply chain vulnerability. Vegetable production now accounts for only 5% of agricultural land in Ireland with producers locked in competition for survival while our shelves are stocked with fresh vegetables from thousands of kilometres away, available to us for less than it costs to send a postcard from Cork to Dublin.


A longing for 'local'

Last Autumn, as part of a TASC research project, I crossed the country in a camper van, meeting farmers, rural food workers and fishermen face to face to listen to their aspirations and concerns about the futures and the impact of climate change.  While many had positive stories to tell, too many spoke to me about indebtedness, crippling overheads and unsustainable workloads due to intensification. Above all, many stressed the undermining of their livelihoods and way of life because of the low payments that they are forced to take for their products, often sold at discount prices to entice people in.  

If we move beyond Ireland to look at international supply chains, the picture gets even bleaker. There are over two million children who, due to poverty, are forced into the cacao fields of West Africa to satiate the global demand for chocolate. Because of market dynamics that echo the underpinnings of the Irish famine, many workers in the production of grapes, melons and mangos cannot afford to eat outside of harvest season. Human trafficking is so rife in the commercial agriculture and seafood industry that the International Labour Organisation estimates almost 3 million people in these sectors work under threat or coercion. Rather than serving as a tool of development, globalised supply chains are driving poverty, inequality and human suffering.

The human toll of our globalised intensive agriculture system may be greater still. There is mounting evidence that suggests increasing incidence of new zoonotic diseases, like the novel coronavirus, are a result of deforestation and biodiversity loss.  There is also evidence that changing land use, the removal of forests for agriculture, is bringing humans into direct contact with new pathogens and intensive monoculture practices remove natural immunity barriers which biodiverse ecosystems provide.

It is very possible that the normal we long for is the very reason that this global tragedy is unfolding in the first place.

But, the coronavirus pandemic is also showing us that incredible things can be done if political will for action exists. The virus does not discriminate between rich and poor. Acts of economic solidarity have been rushed through parliaments around the world because the wealthy realise that, for their own survival,  they need to make sure that the poor are protected. We must recognise that decades of blunted efforts to end hunger and poverty and prevent the onset of climate change have failed because those with the power to create change were not too concerned about the outcome.

There now exists a genuine awareness of our interdependence. Rather than wishing for a return of the old, we can define a new normal, grounded in this understanding of that interdependence.

Nowhere is this more fundamental than in our food production.

We can take this opportunity to localise our supply chains and globalise solidarity.  Shorter supply chains will enable fairer distribution of wealth and will ensure that we are more resilient to future shocks.  More importantly they can be replicated across the world, providing for wealth building in countries that have suffered most from extractive forces and exploitation. This is not just the right thing to do, it is of practical importance if we are to avoid successive and increasingly crises from disrupting the essential commodity we all rely on most.





Posted in: EconomicsEnvironment

Tagged with: foodsecurity

Sean McCabe

Sean McCabe.PNG

Sean holds an B.Sc in Applied Physics from Dublin City University and an M.Sc. in Development Practice awarded by Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin. Prior to joining TASC, Sean worked as a Policy Officer with the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice for five years. During this time he engaged with the negotiations leading to the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. He also led the Foundation’s work on intergenerational equity. Sean spent five years working in the private sector, as a catastrophe risk analyst with Renaissance Reinsurance. He also spent 2 years working in a hospice in Kolkata, India, and worked with the Environmental Protection Agency in Sierra Leone building the agencies capacity in Geographic Information Systems.



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