A silver lining for small producers

Published 22 April 2020

COVID-19 will have a significant bearing on future food production and potentially offer new opportunities for the emerging group of smaller-scale, environmentally-conscious female producers.

University of New England (UNE) researcher Lucie Newsome, a lecturer in political economy and employment relations, believes the pandemic's disruptions to our daily lives, and attitudes to food security and nutrition, may combine to strengthen local agricultural systems.

"We have been teetering on the edge of major change for a few years now, following drought and bushfires, and I feel the coronavirus will be the tipping point," Lucie says. "Nations all over the world are re-evaluating global production and consumption systems, and the risks associated with them. Irrational fears about food scarcity have seen us question food security and how we do business like never before."

As people all over Australia discover the joy (and in some cases necessity) of growing their own food, there are some who predict that the appetite for sustainable production may develop into a hunger. Physical limitations on our movements, job insecurity and concern for environmental sustainability will further influence future buying patterns.

"As global production chains have been disrupted, and our physical movements are constrained, we've seen a swing back to local production," Lucie says. "Businesses that can ensure a supply of safe, nutritious food are well positioned to capitalise on new markets  and many of these businesses will have been founded by women."

Recent research by Lucie and fellow UNE colleagues Dr Theresa Smith-Ruig and Professor Alison Sheridan has highlighted the growth of a small-producer sector led by women holistically managing their land and marketing niche produce direct to customers. The researchers interviewed 54 entrepreneurial women in agriculture, and met a group inspired by environmental and social sustainability that were pioneering new food systems.

"These women are satisfying growing consumer interest in knowing where food comes from," Lucie says. "They are determined to build their community's capacity to face environmental challenges; they're interested in developing local employment and production that keeps people and profits in those communities. Typically, these producers are doing a lot without expensive machinery and inputs, defying the traditional 'get big or get out' farming mentality, and allowing their customers to connect with the land."

Although empty supermarket shelves tell another story, Australia is not currently experiencing food shortages. However, Lucie believes consumers have a renewed understanding of how precarious food security can be. "I teach national economic history, and the last major disruptions to global economies were the world wars and the Spanish flu pandemic before that," she says.  "We have lived through a great period of prosperity."

Regional producers of today, with low-risk operations, who rely on established social media databases of customers and home deliveries, may actually ride out this protracted period of home isolation reasonably well.

"Consumers are looking for safe and immunity-boosting food," Lucie says. "It will be interesting to see whether this translates into a growth in the organic food sector and the businesses of the women we interviewed, who are all about creating trust, transparency and accountability.

"This pandemic has stripped us back to our most basic of human needs  and food is one of them. It will have big ramifications for future food systems and the ways that our economies operate."

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