From Vertical Gardens to Climate Justice to Food Cooperatives to Nutrition to Racial Justice to Workers’ Rights and More: Where is the Environmental Movement in the Midst of The Pandemic?

Environmentalism in the Era of Coronavirus

While Coronavirus has highlighted many fissures in American society, the implosion of our food supply chain has exposed dire public health conditions and class divides, not to mention wasteful practices.  Though I certainly don’t hold any illusions about the U.S. environmental movement and climate justice advocates, who typically lag far behind their European counterparts, I have been disappointed by activists’ failure to craft a shrewd response to the pandemic or to come up with a coherent narrative which ties together food and racial justice, nutrition and climate change.

            At the most basic level, Coronavirus has laid bare the deficiencies of the American diet and our deplorable state of health.  Indeed, experts point out that individuals with type-2 diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and cardio-vascular disease are at greater risk of suffering from COVID-19 complications.  Since African Americans suffer from such conditions to a greater extent than whites and other racial groups, they are more prone to Coronavirus as a result, and this in turn helps to explain disparities in the proportion of deaths stemming from the pandemic. 

Where is the Spotlight on Nutrition?

            Given the obvious need for a much-delayed discussion about health and diet, it is perplexing how little has been said on the matter from public officials or the media.  Even in the best of times, nutrition has represented something of a taboo within U.S. political circles, which is ironic given the trillions of dollars in healthcare savings Americans might accrue by simply eating better.  Indeed, poor diet is the leading cause of mortality within the country. 

            The New York Times estimates that more than 100 million adults, almost half the population, suffer from pre-diabetes or diabetes, and three out of four are overweight or obese.  Cardiovascular disease, meanwhile, results in a whopping 840,000 deaths a year, a figure far higher than casualties resulting from COVID-19.  Americans’ addiction to meat consumption, which has in turn encouraged previously mentioned cardio-vascular disease, not to mention diabetes and obesity, certainly hasn’t improved matters. 

            “Instead of debating who should pay for all this,” the Times writes, “no one is asking the far more simple and imperative question: What is making us so sick, and how can we reverse this so we need less health care?”  And yet, with a few exceptions such as Michelle Obama, who called obesity a national security threat and promoted various programs to encourage healthier eating, politicians have been reluctant to fight obesity, and needless to say the food industry spends millions of dollars lobbying Washington to preserve the status quo

From Republicans to Democrats

            Though there’s been a leadership vacuum when it comes to nutrition spanning both Democratic and Republican administrations alike, the GOP has literally “lived by red meat.”  Indeed, congressional Republicans lobbied the Obama White House, protesting that the administration had unfairly vilified the benefits of red meat.  The GOP also banned sustainability from an appropriations act, which limited the scope of nutritional and dietary information, though perhaps that’s not so surprising given that Republicans receive the vast majority of funding from the meat-processing industry.  In the 2018 electoral cycle, for example, Republicans received 72% of contributions from the food industry, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Outback Steakhouse.

            On the other hand, with rare exceptions such as Ohio congressman Tim Ryan, who built his presidential campaign around the need to promote organic farming and counteract so-called “food deserts,” Democrats haven’t emphasized food policy and nutrition (the fact that so few have heard of Ryan, let alone the issues which he sought to elevate, speaks volumes about American political priorities).  Indeed, prior to the pandemic, party debates were inadequate on such discussions, with candidates simply talking about who should get health coverage and who ought to foot the bill.  Needless to say, media panelists also failed to press the candidates, though in one rare debate, moderators actually asked New Jersey Senator Cory Booker if he thought people should follow his own vegan, plant-based diet.  The politician replied simply, “no.” 

            “It’s understandable,” writes Vox, “that Booker didn’t dwell too long on the veganism question; perhaps he didn’t want to risk alienating voters by coming off as preachy. Telling everyone that they should give up all animal products would probably not have played well, especially since the debate took place in Texas, which raises more cattle than any other state in the country.”  On the other hand, by avoiding the issue of diet, Booker “missed a golden opportunity” to talk about his own animal welfare plan.

COVID-19, Nutrition and “Boosting Immunity”

            In light of mass casualties stemming from the Coronavirus pandemic, it is a shame that the country failed to receive a proper debate on nutrition before, when it was vitally needed.  To be sure, the immune system is not a single unit, but rather an intricate structure consisting of many parts including cells, molecules, tissues and organs, and therefore it cannot technically be “turbo-charged” or “boosted.”  As a result, one cannot conclude that any one specific food will improve immune function, or help to fight COVID-19 specifically. 

            On the other hand, the World Health Organization agrees that a healthy lifestyle makes all bodily functions work better, including immunity.  As part of such a healthy lifestyle, experts advise eating a diet which is high in fruits and vegetables, and previous studies have shown that certain foods can improve health and strengthen the body’s ability to fight off invasive viruses.    The British Dietetic Association says that while it is not possible to boost immunity through diet, there are many nutrients that are helpful in promoting the functioning of the immune system, from copper to folate to iron to zinc to vitamins A, C and D.  Though the Association does not recommend consuming any one food in excess, red bell peppers, spinach and broccoli contain large amounts of vitamin C, which is one nutrient Americans aren’t getting enough of in their diet.

From Dystopia…

             It makes sense that more nutritious, plant-based diets will contribute generally to better health outcomes, and yet president Trump, whose own personal preference for junk food is well known, has prioritized the meat industry during the Coronavirus pandemic by mandating that processing plants stay open.  Perhaps such moves aren’t so surprising, given that only five percent of the American population is vegetarian and the average person consumes 106 pounds of red meat and 80 pounds of poultry annually. 

            Bolstered by the farm lobby, the meat processing industry has consolidated to such a degree that today, just a small number of Midwestern slaughterhouses account for the largest share of the nation’s meat supply.  Because of the meat industry’s powerful lobby, beans, lentils, fruits and vegetables receive minimal subsidies under a new farm bill, while meat gets a substantial boost.

To Wasteful Slaughter…

            Despite these moves, it’s unclear whether the meat processing industry can avoid long-term fallout from the crisis.  In the midst of COVID-19 outbreaks at local plants and worker deaths, the industry was initially hurt financially by closures and production losses, which in turn led to disruptions in the supply chain as grocery stores, school cafeterias, fast food outlets and restaurants experienced meat shortages.  What is more, the industry engaged in wasteful slaughter when some farmers resorted to killing their animals.  Though many plants have since reopened, there are concerns about the industry’s long-term financial recovery.

            Such problems are rooted in the industrial system for raising animals, since producers don’t know what to do with such animals in the event of a shut down, and ordinarily meat production is high.  In one case, companies were obliged to “depopulate” two million chickens because the plants simply lacked adequate staff to process the birds (“depopulation,” as it turns out, is a euphemism for baking chickens alive by turning up the heat while turning off the ventilation).  Normally, depopulation is only used to kill diseased animals, not healthy ones. 

To Deplorable Working Conditions…

            From a health and environmental standpoint, it’s difficult to even know where to start with the meat-packing industry and factory farms, which are not only making Americans less healthy, but also spreading COVID-19 to workers, many of whom are minorities, undocumented immigrants or hail from the Latinx community.  Even before the pandemic, slaughterhouse jobs were considered some of the most dangerous in the country, with injuries running the gamut from cuts to amputations to cancers and autoimmune diseases. 

            Indeed, spread of the virus within meat-packing plants prompted an outcry from labor unions, which had been largely quiet in their dealings with the companies prior to the pandemic.  In addition, as I have written, factory farms, which provide 99% of Americans’ meat, dairy and eggs, comprise an ideal breeding ground for infectious disease because of the crowded and inhumane conditions in which animals are housed.  Needless to say, such farms also contribute to harmful greenhouse gasses.

To Utopia…?

            On the other hand, implosion of the meat-packing industry, concerns over Coronavirus and problems with the food distribution system have spurred a rise in urban farming.  Observers note that urban farming can take many forms, from roof-top gardens to farming on abandoned buildings to parking lots to backyards and balcony gardens.  Though urban farming has been criticized for providing niche foods to an urban elite, it can help to aid neighborhood regeneration in areas hit by industrial decline, or help to address food distribution inequities.  Other benefits range from decreasing transportation costs to improving personal health to promoting sustainable livelihoods to job creation to decreasing the effects of so-called urban “heat islands.” 

            In New York city no less, residents have been promoting “homesteading,” meaning people have started to grow food in their own apartments.  They have done so by rigging up trash cans to grow root vegetables, for example, or by cultivating other vegetables in planters.  Reportedly, these homesteaders form part of a larger, growing trend which has “taken root” since the onset of the pandemic.

Urban Farming Goes Bicoastal

            In the Seattle area, meanwhile, diehards have taken to urban farming, which has created unprecedented shortages at feed stores.  Locals have added chicken coops and cisterns to their backyards, growing everything from pumpkins to carrots while planting sunflowers in an effort to attract bees.  Such trailblazing forms part of a broader effort to create ecosystems, since pollinators are essential for sustainable landscapes and biodiversity. 

            At the same time, non-profits have helped the city create pollinator “green lines” near the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and through such efforts, bee populations have soared to new heights by 70%.  Reportedly, the new gardening craze has caught on to such a degree, that some have even launched work parties which have engaged both seniors and troubled teens alike.  The boom in urban farming has reached other areas of the west coast, too, such as Los Angeles.         

            Meanwhile, in New Jersey, local community groups have gotten their hands dirty.  Trenton, a city of almost 100,000 people, comprises a so-called “food desert” and has only one full-service supermarket.  With the onset of the pandemic, residents have learned new urban gardening skills while filling vital nutritional needs.  There’s been a similar boom in the cities of Camden and Newark, where some hope to transform abandoned vacant lots into green spaces.

An International Movement

            The movement has spread abroad, with the largest urban rooftop farm in Paris growing strawberries and thus providing a clean and sustainable model of agriculture.  Inner city agriculture is also booming from Africa to Shanghai to Tokyo, with people growing fruits in disused shipping containers and mushrooms in underground parking lots.  In Bangkok, pandemic lock-downs have obliged more city residents to grow fruits and vegetables in their homes while Singapore, which imports more than 90% of its food, is experimenting with vertical and rooftop farms.  In the midst of the pandemic, a lawmaker there remarked, “it would be wise for us to think of how to invest in homegrown food.” 

            In Latin America, urban agriculture has spread to Quito, Ecuador and Mexico City, which has revived indigenous floating farms in the lake district known as chinampas.  Since the onset of the pandemic, which interrupted Mexico’s food supply, small farms have ramped up production and abandoned chinampas have been restored, so as to supply fresh and local food.  The need has been acute due to pandemic-related problems at Mexico City’s main market, where some warehouses have been forced to close, truck traffic has been limited and people have fallen sick with the virus.  But unlike the market, which is an enclosed space, small farmers can deliver crops to consumers directly in a model similar to CSA’s (or Community Supported Agriculture, see below). 

Cooperatives During the Pandemic

            COVID-19 has shaken up our food habits in other ways, too.  For years, food cooperatives, some of which require members to actually fulfill a work shift requirement in return for substantial savings, have built up relationships with local food movements and small farmers.  In addition, the average Co-op sources from 300 vendors, in contrast to normal grocers who source from just 30.  This in turn came in handy during the first few months of the pandemic, when customers loaded up on pantry items.  Moreover, Co-ops have placed greater shopping safeguards in place than supermarkets, ranging from masks to hand sanitizer and staggered entry.

            Unfortunately, food Co-ops have suffered from a certain amount of disdain from the establishment as well as hostility from mainstream media (take, for example, Brooklyn’s Park Slope Food Co-op, which has been sarcastically ridiculed in the New York Times).  To many, Co-ops are still tied to the natural food movement of the 1970s, or must somehow overcome the notion that they are merely serving hippies or the “food elite.”  In truth, however, Co-ops have come a long way over the decades, and now serve the needs of their communities while providing mainstream products mixed in with other natural, sustainable and organic items.

            In the midst of the pandemic, Co-ops have provided an alternative to the implosion of badly-damaged supply chains, which make it difficult for supermarkets to adequately stock their shelves.  Additionally, some cooperatives have stepped in during the pandemic to help local dairy operations and farmers who otherwise would have had to dump their products.  In summary, then, because the local food movement is linked to a separate supply chain, it is able to move quickly during a crisis when demand increases.

Rise of CSA’s

Consumers have also been turning to CSA’s in the midst of COVID-19.  Indeed, CSA’s have seen a surge in membership since the beginning of the pandemic, which has led to a kind of “heyday.”  On New York’s Long Island, for example, CSA’s are booming, not to mention Texas and Minnesota.  In CSA’s, one pays to regularly receive shipments of whatever local farmers happen to be growing at a given time, which makes sense in light of implosions in the industrial supply chain.  Furthermore, CSA’s benefit small farmers by allowing them to sell “shares” of crops during seasons when expenses are high but incomes are low, thus cutting out wholesalers and distributors with 100% of the money going back to producers.  In other CSA’s, one may work on farms in a system akin to Co-ops. 

Like cooperatives, CSA’s have also occupied something of a “niche” market outside the mainstream as they represent only a tiny proportion of America’s $100 billion farm economy.  But as NPR reports, “Coronavirus just might prove to be sparking community supported agriculture’s breakout moment,” with the movement rapidly spreading out across the country.

No doubt, consumers have been drawn to CSA’s over safety concerns, since the direct-to-consumer model, in which members pick up organic vegetables at a pre-determined location near their homes, does not require dawdling in the grocery aisle and getting exposed to public health risks. 

The Search for Meat Alternatives

In yet other ways, COVID-19 may lead to a shakeup in consumer habits.  With concerns mounting about the supply chain and sustainability, sales of plant-based food products have been skyrocketing.  From veggie burgers to oat milk to plant-based-proteins to alternative meat, chicken and fish, new products have been flying off grocery shelves.  Forbes magazine no less has commented, “with the widespread acceptance that Coronavirus originated in an exotic meat market in China, there has been a massive consumer rethink around food.”  To meet demand, alternative meat companies have been hiring more workers, increasing pay and adding increased shifts.

            To be sure, even before COVID-19 such alternative foods had been slowly gaining popularity, but it was the pandemic which spurred greater consumer curiosity.  For years, plant-based foods typically made of vegetables, legumes and grains were considered a niche item for vegans and vegetarians, though such products have increasingly been showing up in both fast food and fine-dining restaurants.  Indeed, new substitutes have become so popular, that even some meat companies have started producing them, and now plant-based meats are competitive price-wise with ground beef.  The vast sums of money being invested in the plant protein sector will in turn lead to more advanced research into nutritional, taste and texture properties. 

From Cellular Meat to Fake Pork

            Cellular meat, which is meat produced outside the animal’s body after tissues have been extracted, has also been gaining popularity.  Products which are obtained in this manner have the same nutritional value and taste as meat, but do not involve the raising and slaughter of animals.  As a result, cellular meat producers are able to maintain a higher level of biological and health protection while avoiding the threat of zoonotic disease spreading from animals to humans.  Though cellular products are still at the startup stage, the sector has attracted funding from the likes of Bill Gates and Richard Branson.

Outside the U.S, too, the push for alternative-meat products is gaining traction.  Throughout Asia and particularly in mainland China, the number one meat is pork.  China, in fact, consumes more pork per capita than any other country.  Concerns over the spread of disease, however, have spurred the growth of alternative meat companies, including OmniPork, a plant-based product which is served in some of Hong Kong’s trendiest restaurants, hotels and bars.  Another Beijing firm, Zhenmeat, is looking into 3-D printing of its products in an effort to mimic the feel of bone or muscle.  Observers believe that such products will soon become comparable in price to regular meat.  In Europe, meanwhile, mounting concern over the pandemic is creating pressure on the EU to change its underlying food and agriculture policies, with calls for the bloc to reduce meat and dairy consumption.  

Is the World Ready for a Food Revolution?

            It all sounds good, but is the world ready for a food revolution?  Observers note that we’ve been here before, only to have hopes dashed.  In the midst of UC Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan’s critiques of agribusiness, new farmers’ markets flourished and the notion of “farm to table” became trendy at restaurants.  “At some point, though,” remarks Sierra magazine, “the momentum stalled.  Despite the best efforts of ‘ag-tivists,’ it has proven impossible (so far, at least) to reform the perversities of a federal agricultural policy that sustains an unhealthful and even deadly American food system.”

            It’s not as if the concept of “food justice” is anything new: even before the pandemic, such trends drew food workers, farmers, scientists and activists to conferences in an effort to create a more environmentally sustainable, equitable and healthy food system.  So, what’s changed?  As Sierra notes, “now, the world has been turned upside down, and the winter of doubt has turned into a spring of guarded hope among food sovereignty activists…Among other revelations, the pandemic has illustrated the fragility of our food system.  The waves of panic buying and hoarding prove how totally dependent we are on global chains of production and distribution while also revealing a society-wide gut feeling that such a system might not be all that dependable.”

             Perhaps activists’ best shot at transforming the food system is the Green New Deal, a congressional resolution laying out a comprehensive plan to tackle climate change.  The resolution calls for farmers and ranchers to eliminate greenhouse gasses, adhere to sustainable land-use practices and increase access to healthy food.  However, shortly after being introduced, the resolution fell short on a procedural vote in the Republican-controlled Senate.  Other politicians such as Bernie Sanders have proposed more far-reaching plans by calling for the breaking up of agribusiness, as well as billions of dollars in aid to spur the transition from energy-intensive factory farms to climate-friendly practices.  Sanders also seeks funding for urban farming, co-op grocery stores and farmers of color.

The Next Social Movement

            Observers, however, point out that the Green New Deal is non-binding, meaning even if the resolution passed, this wouldn’t create any new programs.  Rather, the legislation provides for a loose framework and would affirm Congress’ commitment to enact green legislation in coming years.  Moreover, even if Democrats capture the presidency and both houses of Congress in 2020, the Republicans could still filibuster Democratic bills in the Senate, and, for that matter, it’s difficult to get 51 Democratic Senators to agree among themselves on common legislation even in the best of times.

            Meanwhile, even though the pandemic has given rise to a slight shift in consumer habits, it seems unlikely that Americans will give up their meat-eating habits any time soon.  In light of such trends, it appears similarly unlikely that legislators will want to go anywhere near diet as a political issue.  That’s too bad, considering that global food production is responsible for about 37% of greenhouse gas emissions.  Just by itself, without even taking into account post-harvest processing and transportation, agriculture is the second most important emitter after the energy sector.  Even in the midst of climate crisis, however, the meat industry has been fighting back against meat substitutes by convincing state legislatures to pass legislation against using words such as “meat” and “sausage” to describe plant-based products.

            On the other hand, even before the pandemic, advocates sought the articulation of farm and food justice demands within the Green New deal, envisioning a new social movement incorporating broad-based, multi-racial and working class support.  More recently, in the midst of COVID-19, the “slow food movement” has praised anti-racist protesters while pledging to uphold the intersection of food and race.  Such positions build upon earlier calls to advance notions of black food sovereignty, land and justice.

            The pandemic has made earlier notions of “environmentalism” and “climate justice activism” seem somewhat limiting.  As I wrote in an earlier essay, Coronavirus has led to a convergence of separate issues, such that it’s now difficult to distinguish between public health and the environment, and fundamentally humans must now learn to “stay in their proper lane” by respecting animals and their rightful place in the world.  Though certainly horrific, COVID-19 will hopefully be a “game changer” leading to a new social movement which boldly re-imagines the food system as a means of ensuring nothing less than our common planetary survival.