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The link between coronavirus and food – what can we do?

March 18, 2020

plate,knife, fork, glass, bread board

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.

sweetcorn, pepper, cucumbers, chillis and courgettes

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.

Thank you

Sources:

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

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43 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2020 9:55 am

    Very thought provoking and well written blog post Sally! Couldn’t agree more… I think this is a Wake Up Call of sorts for all of us! We have gone beyond what is natural, ethical and traditional sources and means in various aspects of our lives and especially food which is a very important part of our sustainance. it’s time to take collection action and question every bit of what we eat and it’s origin considering it is going to affect our health and well being and more over for our children and their future too.
    Bravo, for putting this great piece together!

  2. March 18, 2020 10:16 am

    Thanks Shy – we have to something drastic don’t we. I think about my children and the world they will live in all the time.

  3. March 18, 2020 11:43 am

    What a fantastic piece of writing and thank you so much for explaining it all so clearly and in such a measured way. It is important to stay calm and not sensationalise – the world is full of theories at the moment about the virus – but all you say is true; we all know it is true. I like to tease my kids sometimes that when I got married in the late 70s I couldn’t make real ratatouille very often because you simply couldn’t buy most of the ingredients all year round. Now food is shipped in all year round – even strawberries! I do hope this is a wake-up call, that people take notice and think hard about what’s brought us here. It’s important we all take responsibility and not blame it on others but look at how we can change. I agree our world will never be the same again – food, travel, politics. But I hope we can make things better because of it. Take care and please keep writing!

    • March 20, 2020 11:14 am

      Really appreciate your kind words Kay. I agree that we need to make urgent change and not try to get back to how it was in the recent past. My real worry is that the current economic collapse which will cause so small businesses to fail will concentrate even more power in a few companies who have blatant disregard for the planet in pursuit of money.

      • March 20, 2020 11:59 am

        I agree; that is what so often happens. Let’s hope it will be different. I’ve just written on my blog about how small businesses are adjusting and trying to do things differently when they can, highlighting my local Italian deli who are now delivering and starting to offer meals too to help survive this. We must all support our local small businesses as much as we can. Take care!

  4. Jess Emsley permalink
    March 18, 2020 11:57 am

    Really thought provoking Sally. An excellent article which I’ve shown to family and friends. Well written.
    I hope you are all well? X

    • March 20, 2020 8:37 am

      All as well as they can be in these crazy times Jess. I feel like I’m in a dystopian novel…unfortunately. Hope you’re all doing ok

  5. ceri pemberton permalink
    March 18, 2020 12:12 pm

    Thank you. I am a child of the same generation as you and I well remember food shopping as you describe. I also remember the first times I encountered avocados, courgettes, green peppers and aubergines on holidays in France — and hated them all! Now, they are staples I expect to be able to buy and cook at any time of the year.
    I have been concerned about the quality and source of food for years as well as the expectations we all have about unlimited and perpetual supply.
    I feel helpless to do anything other than preach at my children and control my own purchases. I too hope this crisis prompts a re-evaluation of the whole industry but I am doubtful.
    If there is any effective way I can add my own small voice to a movement for change and contribute I should like to know.
    And, I agree, please keep writing.

  6. March 18, 2020 1:41 pm

    Ditto, dear Sally, so much of the above content and thank you so very much for writing this piece. My wake-up nudge came in the early 2000s when I read Felicity Lawrence’s “Not on the Label” … and after that I started boycotting supermarkets. Not wanting to be holier-than-thou about it and yet wishing to spread the word, as it were, I would bring the subject matter up as often as I could amongst famiily and friends. LIving in Italy, in a small town close to Rome, I of course have very little trouble boycotting supermarkets. I can literally walk to all the shops for food and wine. Expense came into the equation as an answer from people, that and time factors: who has time to go to small shops for food and supermarkets are cheaper. These were reasonable arguments. I don’t think I managed to convince anyone. However, more recently, and thanks to a younger generation I am presuming, there has been a growing interest in farmers’ markets. A huge pat on the back must go to Eva Castrucci who started one near the town of Ariccia. It used to be just on a Sunday. Now the network she started has spread to so many towns in this area and there is a market every day of the week. The Slow Food movement markets also deserve credit. I take these developments as a welcome sign that people ARE looking to redeem a more ‘human’, less production-line, approach to buying food and engating with the people who grow and raise it. I am not a vegan but I think we have to appreciate what the vegan movement has done to make us more aware of how animal food is treated (maltreated rather). However little we know about the extent of wet markets in China being a cause in the creation of viruses (not just this one), it is still heartening to know that a ban has finally been imposed: https://www.businessinsider.com/china-bans-wildlife-trade-consumption-coronavirus-2020-2?IR=T

  7. March 18, 2020 1:47 pm

    Thank you Sally hope this great bit of writing goes “VIRAL” I remember so well from my childhood all that you describe let’s all work at turning the clock back to those days before GAIA does it more dramatically hrself

  8. March 18, 2020 1:48 pm

    Thank you Sally hope this great bit of writing goes “VIRAL” I remember so well from my childhood all that you describe let’s all work at turning the clock back to those days before GAIA does it more dramatically herself

    • March 20, 2020 8:33 am

      Thank you Alison – really appreciated. I suppose we can’t put the clock back completely and a lot about the post war agricultural system has escalated into what’s causing today’s problems. The world has changed so much. I think the values need to change though – we need to support each other and accept that having what we want every day is not compatible with a society or a planet with a future. Turning the clock back to valuing the small but important things about life – taste, provenance, impact and kindness.

  9. Ciara permalink
    March 18, 2020 2:23 pm

    Sally once again pulling it out of the thought provoking bag whilst sharing your knowledge to empower us all to be change agents in the future. There is a future albeit a very different world we all have to do better.

    • March 19, 2020 8:01 pm

      You’re so right Ciara – we have to do something urgently.

  10. March 18, 2020 2:29 pm

    I have taken the liberty of reposting your blog post on mine, thank you.

    • March 19, 2020 8:01 pm

      Thank you so much. The more we are aware of these complex but devastating issues the better.

  11. March 18, 2020 6:57 pm

    This is a lovely article. Questioning what is eat is so very important for this country and this world we live in. Thoughtless purchases got us into this situation, and mindful ones will help to repair the damage.

    • March 19, 2020 8:00 pm

      Thanks Dorothy. Cigarettes have health warnings and high taxes. I think the same approach should be given to the ultra-processed foods that now make up so much of our diet, have such an impact on health and on the planet, and are so ‘cheap’ (with costs to our environment, health system etc).

  12. March 18, 2020 9:17 pm

    I had downloaded Dan Saladino’s BBC podcast, but I have yet to tune in! So I am very grateful for your thought-provoking perspective. We’re going to wake up to a different world once this crisis is behind us – and that’s something I welcome. There’s a silver lining (and opportunities) with every crisis. The way we eat, the way we go about our daily lives, and the way we do business will change forever. So much food for thought. Thanks for sharing Sally. x

    • March 19, 2020 7:56 pm

      Thanks Sam. There’s an article in the Guardian today with an indepth look at zoonotic diseases which reinforces that encroaching into previously complex and untouched habitats has proved to be lethal. Humans are reaping the consequences of our destruction of nature.

  13. Colin permalink
    March 18, 2020 10:01 pm

    What a lot of very sensible comments have been aired above by people far better at communicating than I am. At my age of 86yrs, I am very much of an earlier generation and can well remember the situations previously described.
    Local produce, grown and eaten in their due season is very much better than food from everywhere eaten at anytime. Apples from home, tomatoes from the garden, carrots from the local farmer all taste much better and healthier.

    • March 19, 2020 7:51 pm

      Putting everything else aside, it’s the taste isn’t it Colin. The first few strawberries of the season picked at dawn from the garden (we had them for breakfast with the top of the milk).

  14. Louay Moursel permalink
    March 19, 2020 9:43 am

    “Everything is filmed today except where our food comes from, where our energy comes from and where our waste goes” this quote has many meanings and benefits if we dig down around each word in it.

    • March 19, 2020 7:50 pm

      I agree Louay – whether you agree with Russell Brand or not, he certainly makes you consider things in a different way.

  15. March 19, 2020 2:34 pm

    Consumption without consequence…such a sobering thought but one we all need to look at more seriously. We shall see how the whole industry reacts and (hopefully) bounces back stronger.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • March 19, 2020 7:49 pm

      It’s how that consumption is networked across the whole planet too isn’t it – from the microbes in the soil to pathogens in forests to plastic bottles in the ocean. We either learn from this or we’re in for a lot worse. Let’s hope it’s the former!

  16. March 21, 2020 7:03 am

    Great article. I think we have become used to overconsumption as well and hence the fervour and inability to gauge how much we actually need versus want.

    • March 22, 2020 11:57 am

      That’s so true. The evidence is the hoarding that’s still going on in the UK. Why do people need to stockpile those things and not make do with less?

  17. Jane permalink
    March 21, 2020 10:52 am

    A very interesting, and thought provoking article, Sally. Very well written and clearly expressed. These are difficult times and we need to take stock and make changes. I hope you are well. Reading this, I heard your voice, and I missed you x

    • March 22, 2020 11:58 am

      I miss you too Jane. I hope you’re all doing OK

  18. March 22, 2020 11:12 am

    Thank you Sally for your informative article. I haven’t listened to the BBC Food Programme yet but intend to. I had seen the Russel Brand video and found it thought provoking too. We do need to take care of our precious world, the food we eat and the air we breath. What is happing now is a wake up call for just how vulnerable we are and how easily that can change. Take care.

    • March 22, 2020 12:00 pm

      Thanks Moya. I’ve been listening to the Guardian long reads (which are also printed online). There is a great one on farming – really looks at how we romanticise the ‘traditional’ view of farming which has only really been going since after the war and is not the solution.

  19. March 23, 2020 10:05 am

    Thank you Sally for sharing this … its so relevant and demands attentions on so many interconnected layers of our current social fabric. Must have been one of the articles that I deliberately chose to read in recent times when my brain is mazed with information overload!

    • March 23, 2020 11:00 am

      Thank you Ishita. We need to keep the conversation going don’t we. We’ll have to postpone our Fooderati meet up but let’s do it as soon as this madness ends.

      • March 28, 2020 8:47 am

        Absolutely Sally! We have to visualise what we want our future to look like to keep the high energy going. Keep writing until then! Much love 🙂

  20. Tricia Evans permalink
    March 23, 2020 10:06 am

    Hi Sally,
    Another thought-provoking, well researched & relevant post – & I agree that things never can/will go back to normal after this. It’s the wake-up call we all needed. Thanks for writing this, Tricia

    • March 23, 2020 10:59 am

      Good to hear from you Tricia and thanks for your kind and wise words as always. Hope all well as it can be down by the coast. Take care

  21. March 26, 2020 4:02 am

    I think back to my childhood and early adulthood – we ate food that was in season and where ever possible locally grown. Food tasted so much better in those days. Special seasonal things like satsumas at Christmas and hot cross buns for easter were so looked forward to. I hate how we have all foods all year round and nothing holds that special status or appeal now.

  22. March 26, 2020 5:50 am

    Sadly most governments now (mine is definitely one of the worse – USA) care more about money for big business than the lives of the average person. Until we have a government again that has empathy for people I have little faith in the system getting better. But this was a well researched and well written article. Thanks for all of the detailed information.

  23. May 18, 2020 11:06 pm

    Good article that makes sense. Well written.

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