Food is our most frequently indulged pleasure. Yet what’s on the plate goes beyond taste and texture. It’s about politics and culture. It’s about supply chains and climate change. It’s about nutrition and health outcomes. It’s about the working conditions and living standards of farmers. Sure, it’s about trendy pop-ups and exciting food trucks. But it’s also about crop-destroying cyclones and locust swarms.
Scientists have been crying hoarse for decades that human actions are pushing life on our shared planet towards disaster. Food production, transport, processing and waste are placing enormous pressure on environmental resources. By 2050, with the global population expected to reach nearly 10 billion, the requirement for food will be 60% higher than it is today. But, at the current rate of ecological degradation, there simply won’t be enough arable land left to meet this demand, according to the World Economic Forum. The result: a food security crisis.
Do we care? No.
We have our heads in the sand, and live in a state of denial. We think: “It won’t happen to me or in my lifetime, or be that bad.”
Yet the early days of the coronavirus-induced lockdown gave us a taste of what a food crisis could be like. With restrictions on borders, transport and employment, hunger worsened among the poor and farm incomes plummeted. In cities, the disrupted supply lines reflected in sparser grocery shelves. This time, there was no denying the disaster. We felt the pinch because it affected everyone directly, including us privileged.
As the pandemic made us housebound, we began buying, cooking and eating very differently. The virus limited potentially dangerous trips to the market. Rather than behaving like kids rampaging through a candy shop, we went shopping for groceries with focused lists.
Food prices surged. We felt the pressure on our wallets and turned affordable pantry staples into delicious, healthy meals. Low-cost sources of protein, which were occasionally overlooked in the past, found a more prominent place on our menus.
In the absence of domestic workers, we took to making solid, belly-filling one-pot meals. Instead of luxury, we learnt to embrace minimalism. Stocking up our pantries with essentials, we became experts at rationing.
Staggering waste occurred during the initial phase of the lockdown due to limited ability to produce, store and transport food. Cabbage crops were flattened. Chickens were culled because of rumours linking poultry to the virus. Milk was poured down drains.
As supplies dwindled, there was a significant reduction in food wastage at the post-purchase stage. Determined not to relegate anything to the bin, we realised that an overripe banana is just fine to eat beneath its blackened peel.
We repurposed leftovers, became formidable baristas and tried our hand at the art of baking sourdough. We became masters at substituting ingredients – coriander in place of parsley, and lemon zest when lemongrass was not available.
The resultant diversity expanded our taste horizons. Before Covid-19, we had been relying on a predictable repertoire of dishes and core ingredients. By having a varied plate, we turned out more exciting meals.
Frustrated by the lack of slots on online delivery apps, we shopped at standalone mom-and-pop stores marked with chalked-out circles for physical distancing. It was these local heroes that kept our pantries running.
Supply and demand
The pandemic bared the many fault lines of the global supply chain.
As lockdowns sealed borders and trade restrictions prevented food from reaching its markets, international food trade flatlined. Countries that depend heavily on imported wheat and rice suffered. It became clear that overreliance on any system that cannot adapt during an emergency is a mistake.
We realised the importance of food sovereignty and of building resilience into local food supply chains. We understood that protectionism, which restricts access to the earth’s diversity, is not the answer. But a model that pollutes the planet and doesn’t have a safety net against economic shock needs an urgent overhaul.
The benefits of eating local became clear as many of us took to buying directly from farmers and small-scale organic producers. Health experts on television waxed eloquent about the need to eat seasonal foods abundant in nature, and to tap into our native wisdom. Out went chia seeds, goji berries, American kale and quinoa, the so-called superfoods that travel across continents to reach supermarkets. Instead, we looked at bajra, gur and ghee with new eyes.
Immunity became the new buzzword as we were informed that a poor diet leads to increased risk of infection. Bottles of Chyawanprash flew off shelves, immunity capsules became scarce, and the prices of Vitamin C-rich oranges and mosambis surged. Geeking out on the food-as-medicine aspect of Ayurveda, we couldn’t get enough of our kadha and haldi doodh.
We embraced carbs for energy and comfort. Yet we tried to wean ourselves off the hyper-palatable foods that are engineered to be irresistible with a combination of salt, sugar and fat.
There was an evident shift towards plant-based diets. With supply chains of meat companies disrupted in the lockdown, we ate less meat. Even those of us who dismiss the environmental impact of livestock (which accounts for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions, as per the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) were forced to admit that relying on animals for all our protein needs isn’t the smart thing to do.
Above all, the pandemic brought to fore the scourge of inequality. As the privileged sheltered in place, the sudden loss of livelihood led to severe food insecurity for millions who were already struggling with hunger and poverty.
Thousands of migrant workers walked hundreds of kilometers in the scorching sun, pitching makeshift kitchens along the way. Horror stories emerged of workers’ children forced to eat mud to squelch their hunger.
The problem was not shortage of grain in the country, but lack of money in the hands of people who desperately needed food. Many of us came forward to help. We donated to food banks, packed food from our homes or joined feeding programmes. But given the enormity of the tragedy, all these efforts were scarcely enough.
Lessons to learn
As lockdowns ease worldwide, human society faces a moment of reckoning. As consumers, we can no longer take for granted that safe, nutritious food will continue to be available to us forever. Without global awareness and action, destruction will continue to produce food crises.
In an interview, writer Lawrence Wright, whose latest novel The End of October parallels many of the events we are living through, said, “When we look back, we will see this contagion as a warning and even a blessing that we were alerted at this this time of the dangers we face.”
Long after the Covid-19 crisis blows over, we will continue to see more pandemics, zoonotic diseases and extreme weather events induced by climate change. The ghastly pandemic has brought home the importance of early planning and shown us why preparedness is crucial whenever the next microscopic menace comes down the pike.
Now, more than ever, we are aware of how vulnerable our food sources are to climate change and disease. This moment is one of the best shots we have at hitting the reset button on what and how we eat.
The World Wide Fund for Nature recommends the following ways we can eat more sustainably: 1. Eat more plants. 2. Eat a variety of food 3. Waste less food. 4. Moderate our meat. 5. Eat fewer foods high in fat, salt and sugar.
Many of us followed these rules during the lockdown, demonstrating our significant potential to adapt, given the will. Let us retain these lessons in our lives. There is more to this catastrophe than what’s-cooking-in-lockdown contests and frothy Dalgona coffees.
As drivers in food production, consumers have a vital influence on the demand for various food products. Sadly, we underestimate the power of good choices and individual behavioural change in creating a healthier food system.
Even those of us who talk about sustainability often use a different lens while consuming as individuals. Yet it’s what we put into our shopping bags and on our tables that matters. It has a ripple effect through the entire food chain.
The devastating aftermath of the pandemic should be a catalyst for us to expand our taste, knowledge and awareness and contribute to building a more efficient and sustainable food system.
As the beleaguered restaurant industry resurrects itself (and it will), we will once again hit our favourite eateries and bars, camera phones in hand. And go into reveries about our best-loved meals. But let us not stop there.
From basmati to avocados to tuna, many of our best-loved foods raise big ethical and environmental questions. Let us align our food habits with the wellbeing of the planet. Let us ask where our food is coming from and make our choices with more awareness. Let us consume with a mind, a heart and a conscience.
Only then will we go from being ‘foodies’ to genuine food lovers.