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COVID-19 teaches us a lesson in food self-sufficiency

Producing micro greens for self-sufficiency.

Micro-greens grown in recycled plastic containers.

Photo: Christian Blanco.

We used to take the availability of food for granted. At least, for those of us who have can pay other people to produce, process and prepare food, restaurants, groceries and markets provided these needs. Then, all of a sudden, because of a teeny tiny unseen virus, our food procurement and consumption patterns drastically changed.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the lifestyles and diets of everyone, from the most remote communities to the big cities. In an effort to contain infection, governments around the globe restricted movement by shutting down schools, public events, offices and shops. Farm to market roads closed, food processing factory workers could not go to work, and restaurants stopped operations.

In cities, where we have been so used to “harvesting” our food from supermarket shelves or market stalls, food availability declined. Everybody needed to cook at home, and food supplies got scarce, especially at the beginning of the lockdown period. Fresh produce was difficult to source as farmers couldn’t bring their produce to the markets due to travel restrictions. Imported food was low in supply as COVID-19 disrupted global food distribution systems too.

Plant Therapy

With idle time on their hands, city dwellers suddenly took a keen interest in vegetable gardening and food self-sufficiency, whether they live in a house with a garden or a tiny condominium unit. They either felt the need to have a food source in their homes or needed a hobby to keep them sane, or both. Social media has been flooded with posts of home vegetable gardens and tips on growing food and composting in small spaces. Soil, seeds and seedlings became popular items in online shops.

“The idea of growing your own food makes me feel secure, regardless of what happens outside your house,” says Christian Banco, a sales executive who has started to grow micro-greens in pots in his fifth-floor apartment. He used to get his greens from the grocery, but had difficulties with availability of lettuce, kale and broccoli during the lockdown. “You are not at the mercy of what’s available. It’s cleaner, the quality is much better, and it’s more fulfilling.”

Charisse, a doctor living in Manila, has been growing fruit trees and medicinal ornamental plants in her house. During the lockdown, she increased her self-sufficiency and started growing vegetables as well since she feels it is best for her family to grow their own food: “I had more time to take care of the vegetables; they are cheap, safe and healthy, free from chemicals and pesticides.”

Eventually, some roads opened up and people found a way to create online markets for fresh produce. The fruits and vegetable delivery business has bloomed as many people prefer to stay at home and have their food delivered. Even indigenous communities near Manila diversified their produce and joined the online business too.

But what about those who live in remote areas, the upland dwellers whose farm produce doesn’t reach us at all, or who harvest forest food which we can’t even recognize?

Photo: Tanya Conlu.

Photo: Tanya Conlu.

The More Remote, the More Secure

Many indigenous communities across Philippines did not waste time understanding what COVID-19 is and imposed immediate traditional lockdowns and voluntary self-isolation to protect against the pandemic, as history has taught them to do.

Some opted to totally shun outsiders from entering their areas, even though their livelihoods depended on tourism. They prioritized safety, knowing that they are self-sufficient when it comes to food supplies. “Everyone went back to the mountains,” Nora relates, “because they knew there is a lot of food there. We were not affected by the closure of stores or the shortage of goods because we reverted to forest foods.”

Imposed in March, the lockdown coinciding with the beginning of a planting season for upland farmers. Fortunately, traditional farmers who did not shift to genetically modified (GMO) crops, did not have to rely on seed supplies. Traditional farming entails saving seeds for the next planting season, thus their planting cycle was not disrupted. However, with markets cut off, indigenous peoples had to rely more on the forests for their daily food needs.

A significant percentage of indigenous populations across the globe rely on wild foods for their sustenance and nutrition. Wild foods are edible plants and animals found in forests and rivers. They supply forest-dependent communities with a diversity of nutrients, micronutrients and vitamins often not found in manufactured food. Wild honey, for example, has higher antioxidant properties and is a far superior immunity booster than its domesticated equivalent. Harvesting and hunting are linked to indigenous cultural identity, with traditional skills and knowledge passed on through generations.

If our industrial food system collapses, forest-dependent indigenous communities will survive. They may miss their weekly forage into the town center and their regular market days, but the forest and their upland farms take care of their basic needs. They don’t need a supermarket or a drugstore because foods, building materials and medicines grow all around them. While less fortunate lowlanders had to rely on government aid, some indigenous communities only got their cash relief as late as May, and many even opted not to receive their share as they feared going down to the government centers will put them at risk of getting infected.

This scenario is only possible when indigenous communities have secure land rights. This means they self-govern themselves and their ancestral lands. These important conditions enable them to manage their forest resources sustainably and practice their culture, including traditional methods of farming and harvesting food from the forest. Seeing themselves as part of nature, indigenous peoples accumulated ecological knowledge, which constitutes an intrinsic part of their culture. This way of life has proven to be one of the most effective conservation strategies.

Lessons from the Pandemic

The pandemic highlights the need for keeping our forests healthy, not just for the indigenous peoples’ needs, but for the survival of all humanity. We need biodiverse forests to provide us food, medicine, building materials, fresh air, clean water, and many other needs. Ironically, the roots of the COVID-19 crisis lies in the destruction of our forests – an unfortunate consequence of our extractive economic model. When forests are destroyed, the imbalance created within the ecosystem no longer enables it to self-regulate and control the spread of diseases.

On a personal level, the pandemic made us reflect on our priorities, and food is at the top of that list. Some of us have started growing our own food in an effort to be self-sufficient.

Upcycled plastic bottle used as a planter.

Photo: Tanya Conlu.

Food Adjustments to Embrace in the New Normal

Surely, the global food industry can do with big changes and improvements to have better yield efficiency and food distribution. But we can all do our share in contributing to food security by minding what, when, and how to eat our food, as well as how to (not) dispose of it.

Here are a few not-too-difficult steps you can take:

  • Eat local. Local foods are fresher and do not require a lot of transport energy for transportation, thereby reducing your carbon footprint and reducing food safety risks. This action also supports your local farmers and producers.
  • Eat seasonally. Most of the fruits and vegetables are at their best at certain times of the year when there is no need for additional fertilizers and other chemicals to induce yield. Eating in season also promotes food diversity and balanced nutrition.
  • Support indigenous. When purchasing honey, agri-based products, hand-woven cloth and other crafts, choose indigenous products. Remember that supporting indigenous communities helps to conserve forests.
  • Eat less meat. More water, more land, more energy and other resources are used for industrial animal farming than crops. The less meat you eat, the less pressure there is on our forests and oceans.
  • Do not waste food. Plan your meals well, and order or cook only what you can finish. Save leftovers and store food correctly. Learn to pickle, ferment, freeze, and other methods of food preservation.
  • Do not waste kitchen waste. Composting is always a good idea. This action reduces the pressure on landfills while providing nutrient-rich soil you can use to grow your plants.
  • Grow your own. There is no space too small to grow your own food and increase your self-sufficiency. You can’t get any more local than that.

Written by Tanya Conlu, a natural resource manage and member of the IUCN global volunteer network Sustainable Use and Livelihoods (SULi), and an honorary member of the ICCA Consortium. Tanya has worked with indigenous communities in South and Southeast Asia for over a decade and previously in various environmental projects involving wildlife conservation. An advocate for sustainable living, she is based in the Philippines and is part-owner of an online refiller store.