Covid 19: Is sustainability gaining importance despite increasing poverty?

By: Alexandra Bussler

Worldwide, the COVID pandemic has unleashed a new poverty wave affecting millions of people. In Portugal alone, in 2020 more than 900 000 job losses were recorded and 37% more people are searching for employment than in 2019. People with jobs that otherwise secured a reasonable living standard are now unable to make ends meet. The reliance on food aid raised by 15% and food banks are overflown by people. Many that had never imagined to have to resort to food aid are reluctant to admit this new situation of poverty, suggesting that the actual poverty crisis is even more dramatic than what these numbers show.

However, there seems to be a positive development that can be observed during the Covid pandemic. The uncertainty about the future and the loss of control that many are experiencing in these times of crisis can create conditions for change and transformation. In fact, sustainability concerns and community-based initiatives are gaining importance and attention in midst of this hardship. In Portugal, the demand for food baskets and local food providers has been increasing steadily since the onset of the pandemic. These times of uncertainty are also windows of opportunity for new pathways. Therefore, we have to take this situation seriously in order to bring the sustainability transition forward, and to make our food systems healthier, more just, more resilient and more sustainable.

This trend has also been observed in an online survey made to the consumers of the Fruta Feia food cooperative in Lisbon in October 2020. Fruta Feia is a 2013-born initiative aiming to reduce the food waste problem in Portuguese cities in collaboration with about 250 local smallholder farmers, many of them organic farming producers. Today, Fruta Feia brings ‘ugly’ fruits and veggies at social prices to the tables of 6.600 families and already saved 2.760 tons of food from the bins while creating sustainable jobs in their 12 delegations all over Portugal. The establishment of these alternative and sustainable markets even yielded them the 2020 European LIFE prize for the Environment.

The online survey asked about 500 active consumers of the 8 Lisbon-based Fruta Feia delegations on sustainability topics in relation to the food sector. We could identify five major messages:

  • Poverty and economic concerns have increased with the pandemic. 60% of the respondents have increased concerns on their personal economic situation, 59% started to buy cheaper groceries, and even 23,3% are experiencing increased difficulty to access food. 39,3% of the respondents perceive that the number of people needing food assistance on a society level is increasing.
  • The Covid pandemic has increased the preoccupation with sustainability and the environment. 69,8% of the respondents stated to have increased environmental concerns in their personal lives and even 63,2 % declared to start buying more sustainable groceries as a result of the pandemic.
  • Community-based initiatives are a crucial social safety net for people in need in times of crises and are gaining importance in the sustainability transition. 62,9% of the respondents agree to have increasing demand for additional community based initiatives other than Fruta Feia, which are at the heart of the transition towards more sustainable ways of living.
  • Covid favored the development of innovative consumer-producer relations: 75,5% share the perception that Covid favored the development of short food supply chains (SFSCs) and Alternative Food Networks (AFNs). Even the importance of local and neighborhood markets increased for 53% of the respondents, while they see industrial agriculture in crisis (67,9%).
  • Increased importance of local food: As an extra impulse towards more local and sustainable food networks can be interpreted the respective 67,5% and 67,7% of respondents agreeing that urban food production (e.g. urban gardens) and the self-production of food are increasingly important in light of the pandemic.

At first glance, these survey results may allow a positive outlook into the future of our food systems and the sustainability transformation in general. However, we have to take these results with a pinch of salt. On the one hand, it seems that the Covid pandemic has opened up a window of opportunity for the sustainability discourse and has consolidated the important societal role that sustainable initiatives like Fruta Feia have gained. Not only are they now seen as a crucial support network in times of hardship, but also they have gained importance as transformative actors. On the other, it is important to keep in mind that these results are context-specific – they refer to a particular initiative that targets a proportion of customers sensitive to sustainability issues and discourses -, and also tap only into prescribed practices and perceptions and not the actual unconscious everyday life practices that may often conflict in unanticipated ways with what people think what is the best course of action.

Notwithstanding, these preliminary results unveil that more research is needed to better understand some of these positive signals and uncover the potential for change. One aspect, crucial to untap this potential for sustainable transformation, is that local policy actors need to realize the importance of these initiatives and develop coherent and coordinated policy-making that create programmes to make sustainability pathways possible. This is the way towards a healthy, sustainable, just and resilient food system that can help to adapt to the effects of future crises and even mitigate their impacts.

Alexandra Bussler is pursuing her Phd degree in Climate Change and Sustainable Development Policies at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon. Recently, she is also a guest lecturer in the Master Programme Design for Sustainability. She researches on community based initiatives, local policy innovation in climate change mitigation and adaptation and regional development in relation to sustainability and environment. Besides, Alexandra works as a research assistant in the inter-european BEACON project (Bridging for European and Local Climate Action). Her academic background is in International Economics, Development Studies and Economic History.


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