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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ikerd

COVID-19 Crises Reveals Need for Systemic Change

Updated: Jul 4, 2020

In my previous blog post, I focused on opportunities for specific changes in the food system created by the COVID-19 crisis. In this post I want to focus on the need for systemic change. The COVID-19 pandemic fits the nature of cyclical disturbances that have been studied extensively by ecologists for at least the past 50 years. “Ecologists have established that natural systems do not move toward a sustainable equilibrium; instead, disruptions of existing systems of species and communities are a regular and often necessary feature for systems to be resilient.” Suppression or mitigation of cyclical disruptions may prolong the maturing phase of a cycle and make a system less able to survive a future disruption. The mitigation of disruptions has been labeled “engineering resilience,” meaning an attempt to restore stability, without establishing “systemic resilience.” Engineered resilience allows continued reliance on systems that are inherently unsustainable and, if not fundamentally changed, are destined to collapse.

Current responses to the COVID-19 are engineering attempts to restore stability to unsustainable systems. The focus thus far has been on finding ways to reopen the economy and return to a “more normal” way of life. Government programs thus far have emphasized mitigating the economic fallout by providing loans, grants, and other forms of financial assistance. These programs are designed to stabilize the economy, not to change it. Stocks of medical supplies and equipment will be replenished sufficiently to add a degree of redundancy to the current system. New strategies will be developed to shorten response times for future pandemics. These engineered responses may add stability, at least for a while. However, without fundamental change in the medical system as a whole, its vulnerability to a future pandemic will be even greater than before. Without fundamental change in the current economy and society, there will be no fundamental change in the medical system. The vulnerability of the current public health system is a reflection of the priority currently placed the economy relative to public health and the overall well-being of society.

The private healthcare system will not consistently maintain or replenish outdated stocks of medical supplies or equipment. Such redundancies will not be deemed “economically feasible.” Governments may be even slower to respond to future pandemics—regardless of their strategic plans. The people, not the corporate economy, have been asked to bear the economic and human costs of the COVID-19 pandemic—in terms of sickness and death as well as dollars and cents. They have done so in the past, and expectations have only been strengthened that they will do so again in the future. Governments will expect the people to again “come together” and support their political leaders during a crisis. If this pattern continues, during some future pandemic or other global crisis, the engineering responses will be too little or too late. The lack of resilience in our public health or economic systems leaves us vulnerable to a societal collapse.

The same is true with respect to COVID-19 impacts on the food system, as explained in more detail in my previous blog post. The food system had been identified as an essential sector of the economy. Food processing and distribution facilities have remained open. Supermarkets also have remained open. Restaurants and other public eating places have been closed. Schools and other institutional eating places also have been closed. Online sales by supermarkets have increased dramatically, as some have chosen to “shelter in place” rather than shop for food. Means of acquiring food have changed, as at least parts of the food system have remained open.

Whenever coronavirus outbreaks have occurred in the food processing sector, facilities have been closed, cleaned, and then reopened. However, extended shutdowns or slowdowns in specific sectors have disrupted the food system as a whole. Farm level commodity prices have fallen sharply in response. Farmers who are reliant or closed food processors or food sectors have been forced to plow under vegetables, dump milk, and kill off flocks of egg laying hens. The separate food sectors are essentially separate subsystems that extend from retail outlets all the back to the farms. It is difficult if not impossible to shift production from one processor to another or from sector to another. For many commodities, there are no remaining “open markets” to use to match surpluses with scarcities. Surpluses build up in food sectors that have shut down while scarcity grows in sectors that remain open. With widespread unemployment, food access for many has become a critical challenge. Miles-long, multiple-lane line of automobile lined up at charity food pick up sites are reminiscent of long “soup lines” during the Great Depression.

The government has responded appropriately to stave off a system-wide collapse by mitigating the economic impacts. Once again, however, the people are been asked to bear the economic costs of a failed food system through government assistance to those all levels in the systems—farmers, processors, distributors, and retailers. Once again, the people are enduring the inevitable hunger and deprivation of a failed food system. Actions thus far have been engineering attempts to stabilize the current food system by simply mitigating its obvious lack of built-in resilience. Little apparent thought or consideration has been given to the need to create systemic resilience by fundamentally changing or redesigning the food system as a whole. There will be other pandemic and other global disruptions of the food system in the future—of this, there is no doubt.

The fundamental flaw in the current food system is that it is motivated primarily by productivity and profits rather than domestic food security. Public health and food security are both recognized as government responsibilities in that major government programs have enacted to support both. Medicare, Medicaid, and Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Programs, or SNAP, are examples. We don’t let people die or starve needlessly, at least not in public, as current massive government expenditures for health care and food assistance attests. However, major sectors of the U.S. healthcare and food systems function as private corporate entities. As long as major sectors of these systems remains motivated by profits and economic efficiency, public health and food security will continue to lack the resilience to survive future crises without massive government intervention. Ultimately we must accept health care and food security as basic human rights and develop government policies that give these rights priority over corporate profits or economic efficiency of government agencies. Only then will we have systems with the built in redundancy and resilience to endure the inevitable shocks and disturbances of future reality.

In previous blog posts and in other papers on my websites, I have outlined my vision for a resilient, regenerative, resourceful, sustainable food systems of the future. The global movements of agroecology and food sovereignty have laid the conceptual foundation for transformational change in global food production, processing, and distribution. Both of these concepts prioritize resilience, regeneration, resourcefulness, and overall human well-being over economic efficiency and expediency. If the global food system is not fundamentally changed, during some future crisis the engineering responses will be too little or too late. The people will then experience the stark reality of massive sickness and starvation that will force the remnants of humanity to change. Systemic change is not an option, it is an absolute necessity.

John Ikerd

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