Food, SRHR, & COVID-19: A Feminist Approach To Food

Two women shopping for food in a grocery store
Women shopping for grocery in a super market | Image Credit: Canva

Li cautiously sprayed the change with 75 percent ethyl alcohol before giving it to her customers, along with the food they ordered. It’s the third week that restaurants in Taipei are required to close their dining areas, and Li has relied on a takeout operation to keep her small business alive ever since. Her husband, who used to help out in the restaurant as a server, has now become the delivery man who brings customers’ food to their doors, rushing around all day with plastic protective clothing and goggles. Li can’t afford using food delivery apps, as their 30 percent charges leave her with no profit due to the soaring price of foodstuffs.

While Taiwan was beginning to enter its very first semi-lockdown in the middle of May 2021, the rest of the world had been struggling with lockdown restrictions and its aftermath for over a year. This crisis is expected to have profound effects on the global level, which will certainly affect rural producers, growth of raw materials and many other aspects in the agri-food system on a much broader scale.

The COVID-19 movement restrictions have prevented small farmers from going to marketplaces, and demand for their products dried up overnight due to the shutdown of restaurants and schools.

Small farmers suffered a severe blow and loss of income. Their planting routine was interrupted or delayed since they couldn’t get sufficient seeds, fertilizers, and services in a timely manner, due to the supply chain disruption caused by massive lockdowns; some farmers may even miss the whole planting season. Even if they are lucky enough to harvest their produce, they may later face difficulty selling them. Small farmers mainly supply their produce to traditional markets, local restaurants, and schools, instead of entering into contracts with big retailers, which usually have strict quality inspections with non-negotiable pricing, leaving little flexibility and benefits for small farmers. Many of them have a hard time selling products to retail stores as they can’t bear the cost of providing product traceability and organic certification. The COVID-19 movement restrictions have prevented small farmers from going to marketplaces, and demand for their products dried up overnight due to the shutdown of restaurants and schools. Research conducted in Latin America and the Caribbean shows small farmers had to sell assets, use savings, or request loans to cope with the crisis because of these adverse effects. 

The agriculture production system in the Global South is mostly shaped by colonization, which contributed to the sufferings of small farmers during the pandemic. Europe has structured and oriented global agriculture from the 15th century based on their needs, and they introduced a system of large plantations to grow cash crops for European markets to Africa, America and Asia, replacing the diverse local agriculture. Today, many small farmers in Africa produce cash crops such as cocoa, coffee, and palm oil, crops that have all served as a major source of export revenue since colonial times. The decline in demand due to  COVID-19, mainly from the Global North, is causing direct repercussions in Africa. McKinsey & Company estimated the possible exports lost for agriculture in Africa, which is primarily made up of small farmers, would be valued at some $35 billion to $40 billion a year. This recession could result in a severe economic blow for countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda—all of which rely on these exports as their primary or secondary source of export earnings.

The boom of international grocery and delivery giants, together with the cries of small farmers and local food producers, revealed the growing gap between transnational corporations and small local businesses, and the deepening inequality between the Global North and Global South with the current agri-food system.

While farmers are worried about their reduced income, food prices jumped by nearly a third over 2020, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Maize prices are 66% higher, wheat prices are 23% higher, and cereal prices are 45% higher than in January 2020. The food price inflation didn’t equally impact all countries. Within the global agri-food market, countries from the Global South that usually have weaker currencies are importing food at higher prices but exporting at lower prices, further restricting their domestic food supplies, as has happened in Brazil. While the price of essential products rose dramatically in Brazil and meat prices became increasingly prohibitive since the beginning of the pandemic, the country’s export of agri-food increased equal to 2.06% in December 2020. 

Not everyone in the food industry has been hurt during the pandemic. Grocery retail giants saw their sales boosted in 2020; Walmart’s annual revenue rose by 6.7%, and Amazon’s saw sales soar by 37.6%. They succeeded in taking more market share from traditional marketplaces and small retailers by taking advantage of their e-commerce platform, strong transportation capacities, exclusive global supply chains, and cheap labor force across the world. Likewise, delivery giants have also benefited from COVID-19; the revenue of four leading delivery apps almost doubled in 2020 by directly taking significant profits of local food suppliers and exploiting their drivers who are being exposed to the virus in their daily work.

It seems that people can purchase food wherever there is a supermarket, but all supermarkets usually belong to a handful of corporations, especially in urban areas.

The boom of international grocery and delivery giants, together with the cries of small farmers and local food producers, revealed the growing gap between transnational corporations and small local businesses, and the deepening inequality between the Global North and Global South with the current agri-food system. Multinational corporations have dominated our global agri-food system; they control much of the production, processing, distribution, marketing, and retailing of foods, setting terms and prices for the worldwide market. This supply chain leads to the reality where small farmers are incredibly vulnerable to the price bargain of their goods, struggling to survive in the global market, and living in poverty and hunger. Consumers are also forced to accept products supplied by big food retailers with few choices, especially when they are under a budget. It seems that people can purchase food wherever there is a supermarket, but all supermarkets usually belong to a handful of corporations, especially in urban areas. 

As stated by the Global Network Against Food Crises, “The pandemic has revealed the fragility of the global food system and the need for more equitable, sustainable and resilient systems to nutritiously and consistently feed 8.5 billion people by 2030. A radical transformation of our agri-food systems is needed to achieve the sustainable development goals.”

What do all these crises have to do with sexual and reproductive health and rights?

The reduced income, together with soaring food prices, has led to food insecurity. Many women have to live with insufficient food, hunger, and malnutrition, which increases the risk of maternal and newborn deaths.

The crises immediately advanced the vulnerabilities of women in the agri-food industry. Although women form the backbone of agriculture, they usually have less control over the families’ assets. According to Oxfam India, 85% of rural women work in agriculture, but only around 13% own any land. It is more likely for them to run out of cash in their business when emergencies strike, since they usually have little spare money. Research conducted by ActionAid’s Covid-19 Food Crisis Monitoring shows that many women farmers, across 14 countries in Asia and Africa, have reported that they can’t afford to plant for the next season. Moreover, the reduced working time has increased unpaid care work and domestic violence since women have to spend more time with their families at home.

The reduced income, together with soaring food prices, has led to food insecurity. Many women have to live with insufficient food, hunger, and malnutrition, which increases the risk of maternal and newborn deaths. According to the Global Network Against Food Crises (GNAFC) recent annual report, at least 155 million people experienced acute food insecurity at crisis or worse levels across 55 countries/territories in 2020, hitting a five-year high. The most recent Census Pulse survey data also illustrates that women have been more affected by food insecurity than men, where  2% more women sometimes or often did not have enough to eat compared tomen..

If we compare the map of the digital gender gap, of the population confronting food insecurity, and the countries hit by the pandemic most, the overlaps demonstrate the intersectional struggles that women in agri-food systems from the Global South are experiencing.

Period poverty will be worsening as lower-income households need to spend more money on food during the pandemic than other needs. Given that poor families often spend 60 to 80 percent of their income on food, they now have to increase the percentage for maintaining their livelihoods due to the spike in grocery prices and the possible reduction in income. They may also need to spend extra money on children’s meal since school meal programs have been canceled with the closures of schools in many countries. Women and girls tend to use alternative options to deal with their periods, which may cause a great risk of bacterial infection.

It is noticeable that fewer women can benefit from the prosperity of the digital economy during the pandemic due to their lack of access to technology. The new food marketplaces online set higher barriers for both its suppliers and consumers than traditional retailers. Most women will feel out of their element, considering the reality that half of the women from the Global South are offline. If we compare the map of the digital gender gap, of the population confronting food insecurity, and the countries hit by the pandemic most, the overlaps demonstrate the intersectional struggles that women in agri-food systems from the Global South are experiencing.

An intersectional approach needs to be adopted when addressing the issue of food security in the advocacy space.

Especially in the context of COVID-19, food insecurity is increasingly invading many people’s lives across the world, and the achievement of SDG Goal 2, “zero hunger,” has been seriously examined. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) warned that the pandemic could “almost double the number of people suffering acute hunger, pushing it to more than a quarter of a billion by the end of 2020”. 

It is time to attack the root of the  problems of the current agri-food system. The food supply chain needs to be reviewed on the local and regional level. Governments should provide sufficient support to small farmers/food producers to assist their equal participation. The access to finance needs to be more flexible, addressing the immediate need for cash of small farmers & food producers. An intersectional approach needs to be adopted when addressing the issue of food security in the advocacy space. Additionally, governments need to ensure the meaningful engagement of SRHR and gender equality advocates in planning future solutions around SDG Goal 2 and the issue of food security. It is also essential for donors to be informed of the interlinkages in food insecurity, SRHR, and economic and social justice, so more innovative solutions can be motivated by flexible resources. 

Hunger cannot be solved by food alone but by a more resilient agri-food system.

BY DANA ZHANG