COVID 19: A Cautionary Tale of the Dangers of Unsustainable Food Production and Consumption

Picture jo and field
Joanna Miller Smallwood
Izabela Delabre

In this post Dr Joanna Miller Smallwood (Sussex University ESRC/SENSS Post Doctoral Fellow and Non-Practising Solicitor) and Dr Izabela Delabre (Sussex University Business School Research Fellow and Sussex Sustainability Research Programme) highlight the relationship the current COVID-19 pandemic crisis has with unsustainable food production and consumption.

SARS-CoV-2 and links to biodiversity

2020 is a critical year for biodiversity and the current COVID-19 pandemic clearly highlights how inextricably linked human welfare and nature are. Preparations are in full swing to form a new global plan to tackle the alarming rate of biodiversity loss worldwide, the so-called “sixth mass extinction”. Most of the world’s states are preparing this year to agree on a new set of global targets to halt the ongoing decimation of the world’s biodiversity. So far, global biodiversity targets have largely been unmet, arguably failing to gain enough political or societal attention for sufficient action to be taken to bend the curve of biodiversity loss.  Aptly, the 2020 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Conference of the Parties (COP) was scheduled to be held in Kunming, China in late autumn and the dawning of a new post-2020 strategic plan for biodiversity draws our attention back to reflect on the main drivers of biodiversity loss, including unsustainable food production and consumption patterns.

COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).  The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is a tragic example of what can happen when social-ecological systems are disturbed, with detrimental consequences. The current food system, dependent on a model of industrialized farming practices to provide large quantities of cheap food for a growing global population, has devastating impacts on important wildlife habitats and biodiversity. The current pandemic could be a cautionary tale of things to come, depending on the lessons we take away from this global crisis.  Unless significant changes are made in production and consumption patterns, and changes to the fundamental nature of our relationship with non-human species, we should anticipate further pandemics and other catastrophes resulting from malfunctioning ecosystems.

As we struggle to come to terms with the current pandemic sweeping the globe, an opportunity is provided in our ‘isolation’ and ‘lock down’ for reflection on the way some of us (often as a result of political-economic systems) live.  The upshot of the capitalist system, which manifests on a global scale, results not only in inequalities in access to commodities such as food and water but in exposure to viruses, access to vaccines and health care.  Further, there are issues of inter-species inequalities, humans are just one species among so many on our amazing planet, yet our actions negatively affect other species. This is particularly visible in food production and consumption systems. Increasingly decadent lifestyles in high income countries and the perpetual drive of a global elite to have more and more, for less and less, is pushing the boundaries of our planet and threatening the nature of our and other species’ ‘safe operating space’, as planetary boundaries are transgressed and people and animals exploited.  At what cost do we place this incessant desire for more? We are playing for high stakes and risking not only the survival of countless non-human species but also our own species – including unequal impacts on the most vulnerable in our societies – as the current pandemic highlights.

The likely origins of SARS-CoV-2 is from Chinese ‘wet markets’ selling live and dead animals for human consumption.  SARS-CoV-2 is a zoonotic virus which can jump from the species it evolved with (wild animals), onto new hosts.  The pressures on land use, habitat destruction, as well as illegal trade in wildlife and climate change all lead to the increased spread of viruses such as SARS-CoV-2.  It is important to note, that SARS-CoV-2 is not the first, and most likely will not be the last such virus with the potential to form a pandemic.

The picture of why SARS-CoV-2 has emerged and is now thriving globally is much bigger.  The probable starting point of SAS-CoV-2 was in Wuhan, China where it arrived and spread to humans at the wet market in one of two ways: either through illegal trafficking of wild creatures, for their use as traditional medicine, food (or in some cases pets); or through legal trade in farmed ‘wild’ species.  In recent times, China has seen a huge change in its farming practices. Frequently through processes of land-grabbing, small scale farmers have become marginalised by huge industrialised farms (owned by large agribusinesses and often supported through foreign investment) to grow food for China and global markets.  As a result, smallholders have been driven to farm wild species, such as high-value pangolins, in order to make a living.  As small farmers have been pushed off the most productive land by industrialised farms, to the edge of forests to farm on uncultivated land, the natural evolution of viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 (and nearly two decades previously SARS-CoV) began by making the leap from one host to another (e.g. bat to pangolin). The virus was then transported to the wet markets, and there the second leap was made from non-human to human species.  However, as Morens et al point out, despite its origins in China this is a global concern not solely a ‘Chinese’ problem (as it has been referred to in populist discourse).

Global Production Patterns

In our drive to want more for less, the dominant use of factory farming has become a key way to provide cheap food at the expense of biodiversity, animal welfare and – as it has also become strikingly apparent – human welfare.   Intensively farmed animals of similar genetic makeup, living in very close proximity to each other provide a playground for zoonotic viruses where they can mutate and spread between each other, wild animals and humans, as has been seen not only with SARS -CoV-2 but also avian flu, including H7N9 and H5N1, and swine flu, H1N1.  In order to safeguard against future pandemics, it is paramount that efforts are made to curb the spread of flu viruses through intensive farming practices.

Industrialised farming is not only a concern of China but a hegemonic global concern and recognised by key international treaties such as the 1992 UN Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) and high-level political agreements such as the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Both contain targets and goals which aim to push states towards sustainable food production and consumption patterns that account for the importance and value of biodiversity.  The push for agricultural expansion and intensification is one of the biggest threats to biodiversity globally due to habitat loss and the push for pesticide-dependent, industrial farming systems.

Worryingly, the recent IPBES global assessment shows that little or no progress has been made towards achieving sustainable consumption and production, largely due to the inordinate increase in demand for consumption. A key issue is governance and who is governed.  States are, to some extent, held responsible to fulfil global targets and pledges, but the industries that advertently or inadvertently, create the conditions leading to such pandemics are not held sufficiently accountable. Here, the political stance is that making cheap food at any cost is deemed more important than the healthy functioning of ecosystems or social responsibility. However, when these fundamental concerns are not added into the neoliberal capitalist equation, we really are playing with fire. This is evident in the context of zoonotic viruses as we are witnessing now and more broadly. As Rob Wallace states, ‘chicken isn’t cheap if it kills millions’.  In his book Big farms make big flu, Wallace argues that agribusinesses need to adopt sustainable production practices and be held to account for higher ecological, social and epidemiological sustainability. Changes in production and consumption patterns are also important in broader terms – the importance of nature (and the understanding that we are part of nature too!) needs to be fully taken on board and respected in political, economic and societal spheres in order to maintain a healthy, functioning planet.

Global Consumption Patterns

There is no doubt that many intensive production practices are clear drivers of biodiversity loss, ethically and morally challenging, and can lead to the creation and spread of harmful and constantly changing viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, SARS-Cov, H7N9, H5N1 and H1N1 to name but a few.  As well as holding large scale agribusiness, supply chains, and governments to account, there is a need – and opportunity – to reflect on our consumption patterns and how we are connected with food production.  While food access is highly uneven, overall global food consumption is rising as the world seeks to feed a rapidly growing population. Increasing wealth for many middle and low-income countries has led to a move away from traditional diets to growing meat consumption (see Figure 1).  Godfray et al. (2018) show that the average amount of meat consumed per person globally has nearly doubled in the past 50 years, from around 23kg in 1961 to 43kg in 2014, and middle-income countries, in particular China and others in east Asia, are seeing rapid rises.  A UN report predicts an increase in global meat consumption of 76% by mid-century. This raises serious questions as to how, or if, these gargantuan levels of meat consumption can be achieved in a sustainable or ethical manner that avoids the inherent risks of future spread of zoonotic viruses through farming practices. SARS-CoV-2 is by no means the worst that can be expected, the virus H7N9 kills a third of those infected.

Meat consumption

There are clear disparities and vast inequalities in food consumption globally.  Figures from the UN show that there are 2 billion overweight and obese people in the world, and in alarming contrast, 821 million people are hungry today and an additional 2 billion people expected to be undernourished by 2050.  In spite of this, and the goal to achieve zero hunger by 2050 across the planet, the planet simply cannot support a consumption model in which everyone eats the level of meat and animal products currently consumed in higher income countries. Our diets and consumption of food needs to be re-thought.

Inter-species respect

Chinese wet markets and other intensive farming practices raise serious animal welfare concerns which also reflect humans lack of connection with nature and understanding of non-human species.  Alasdair Cochrane, in his cutting edge book, Should Animals have Political Rights? stresses the need for animals to not only be protected from cruelty of individuals, but also from structures such as industrialised animal agriculture, that cause them harm.  He pushes further than solely the protection of animal rights but argues for their democratic representation, for example, through dedicated representatives in political decision-making fora.

Ingrid J. Visseren-Hamakers makes a strong case for an 18th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on animal health, welfare and rights and highlights the need to mainstream the consideration of the individual animal into our thinking on sustainable development, including in relation to sustainable food production and consumption. Visseren-Hamakers argues that:

“We cannot ignore the interests of billions of animals while developing sustainable food systems, enabling sustainable consumption and production, combatting and adapting to climate change, and rethinking our strategies for the conservation and sustainable and equitable use of biodiversity”.

Some may argue such notions are extreme, however we argue that the morality and sustainability of current political and societal patterns around food production and consumption are highly questionable and see the incorporation of animal rights as a basic prerequisite to sustainable development and the bare minimum that is needed. If the intrinsic value of non-human species is fully respected within political, economic and social systems then there would be multiple benefits to our species too, including a safeguard against future global pandemics.


The time is upon us to shift the trajectory of this tale, 2020 is a year in which important global decisions are being made by states, in preparation and during negotiations for a post- 2020 strategic plan for biodiversity.  Ambitions in relation to sustainable food production and consumption need to be bold and include sufficient means of accountability, in order to challenge increasingly industrialised farming practices on the grounds of sustainability, equity, public health, non-human health and welfare. Alongside government action, agribusinesses, supply chains and individuals need to play their part and re-think how food can be produced and consumed in a safer and fairer way.



Farming Through Brexit: How will leaving the EU affect farmers in and around the South Downs National Park?

photo of Helena Howe

Helena Howe

In this piece Dr Helena Howe (Lecturer in Law at the University of Sussex) gives snapshot findings from a pilot study of how the UK leaving the EU will affect Sussex farmers. In addition to outlining findings, Helena sets out potential policy implications of the research, as well as next steps for the project.

Initial snapshot of findings from pilot study


In a way this project started in 2016, just after the vote to leave had been announced. I stood at the base of the Downs talking to a farmer who has worked hard to enhance the wildlife on the farm and is justly proud of his farmland bird populations. But his vision of the future was not a comfortable one. If food prices fell and financial support for farming reduced significantly, he feared being left with no choice but to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of the farm; thereby squeezing out the wildlife. A well-designed and funded system of support for farmers and land managers could do much to address the flaws in the existing approaches, buffer uncertain markets and foster sustainable food production in the UK. But the risks of getting it wrong were evident.

Withdrawal from the EU and the Common Agricultural Policy is likely to have significant impacts on farmers in the UK. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is currently developing the new regulatory framework for land management, including the proposed Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) to deliver ‘public payment for public goods’, although there is ongoing uncertainty due to the election and Brexit process.

This is the first stage of a study following a dozen farmers in and around the South Downs National Park until 2024. The aim is to contribute an in-depth, regional exploration of farmers’ lived experience of farming as we leave the EU and their responses to the emerging post-Brexit law and policy.

The research began with this pilot study of six farmers in the Eastern South Downs. The farms involved differ in terms of output, approach and tenure. Four of the farms were described as conventional or commercial, one is organic dairy and another has sustainability firmly integrated with food production. There is a mix of owner-occupiers and tenants.

The farmers were interviewed during summer 2019 and asked for their views on:

  1. the impact of Brexit on their farm business, including the changes to existing payment schemes;
  2. whether the potential changes to their markets and the introduction of the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) were likely to alter the way they farm;
  3. features of the proposed ELMS and opportunities for participation in the process of development;
  4. any other issue they felt important.



1. Potential impact on the farm business

All the farmers felt uncertainty about the future. Several were extremely concerned about the financial viability of their farms post-Brexit given the lack of information on market conditions – particularly tariffs, food standards and distribution channels – as well as payment schemes. Most felt that without either higher food prices or substantial public good payments their farm business would be in a precarious financial position. One noted that their farms and other risked ‘going bankrupt wholesale’ (Farmer A). Most already relied on diversification to support the farm financially, although several questioned why the return on food production was so low as to make diversification necessary.

For most, removal of income support through Direct Payments and lack of detail around the new ELMS was a major concern. The majority felt that the loss of Direct Payments could be mitigated if payments for ‘public goods’ under the new ELMS were set at a suitably high level. However, most of the group acknowledged the problems with an area-based payment to landowners, particularly the impacts on land prices and rent. Several noted that the position was more challenging for tenant farmers than owner-occupied farms. Some also expressed concern for the new generation entering the sector.

Farming in this region was seen as a mixed blessing. Those who farmed in the South Downs National Park felt that this was a potential benefit under a system of payments for the provision of public goods. Several farmers were critical of the South Downs National Park Authority management of issues, particularly in relation to recreational access and planning.

2. Changes to farming focus and practice

For all but two of the farmers producing food was the priority. Two of the participants felt that food production was vital but more integrated with wider environmental and social goals. All the farmers were aware of the potential impact of their practices on the environment, both positive and negative. Several felt the degree of damage done by farming to the environment was mispresented.

The majority of participants appeared pragmatic about what they would produce and how they would manage their land and livestock in the future. As one farmer stated: ‘…if I need to change something because that’s where the money is, then that’s what I have to do’ (Farmer B). Decisions on what to produce and how they produced it would be largely determined by what was required by the market or any payment schemes. One spoke of willingness to produce wildlife if that was what became financially sensible. However, another was prepared to become more intensive if this was the only way to maintain the viability of the farm, against his personal preference. Another two felt they could accept a system in which conservation was integrated into food production but would not prioritise public goods over food.

The other two were less pragmatic. They felt that their commitment to broader principles of sustainability meant that they would not be willing to intensify if it meant seriously compromising these principles.

A recurring theme was that the costs of producing food were not adequately recognised or reflected in the prices consumers expect to pay. Several farmers noted that income support through Direct Payments to farmers worked to subsidize cheaper food. The loss of these payments and low returns on food mean farmers are being asked to absorb this cost unfairly; in effect being asked to produce public goods – in the form of cheap food – without this being acknowledged or paid for. They felt this was a major issue for them and for the future of the sector.

3. Initial responses to ELMS

There was enormous frustration at how inflexible and prescriptive the existing agri-environment schemes (AES) have been in setting and enforcing objectives. Many felt that there was insufficient account taken of farmers’ knowledge of their farm and that enforcement was unduly harsh.

All felt that to be successful the new scheme must address these issues. Recommendations included:

  • a move to a more outcome- based system: ‘so what they need to do is to put it in our hands and say … “you deliver this and we want to see results”’ (Farmer E);
  • greater flexibility to enable farmers to try different approaches without being penalised;
  • regional implementation and support for ‘sensible’, knowledgeable, local advisors to help co-design a plan for the farm and to monitor achievement.

For one famer the scheme was simply flawed because it focuses on environmental goods and ignores food production.

Four of the six farmers are part of the same farming cluster. Some found the experience useful for peer learning and social interaction but others seemed unsure as to their real value or purpose. The importance of having a good facilitator was mentioned by several participants. There was ambivalence about an enhanced role for clusters under the new ELMS system amongst this group. Some recognised that this could help to provide public goods at the landscape level but were concerned about how this could work in practice. Several farmers stated that everyone wants to do their own thing on their own farm and not be tied into a scheme with other farms.

All but one farmer felt that they had not been enabled to participate in the development of the new scheme sufficiently. Some felt that that their views had not been sought, save via online consultation or by bodies such as the National Farmers Union (NFU) and the Country Land and Business Association (CLA). But many also felt they had not been – or would not be – listened to. One farmer mentioned that the South Downs National Park Authority has played a role in feeding their views back to DEFRA. Several famers felt that clusters should be used to feed farmers’ views into policymaking.

4. Additional issues

Several participants highlighted the challenges facing younger entrants into farming, such as access to available land – on which to both farm and live – as well as comparatively low levels of pay. Some linked this to the wider issue of how to support thriving rural communities through planning and communications policies. Others mentioned the move towards plant-based diets. Some noted the vital role of cattle and sheep farming in maintaining the Downs landscape but others were trying out products for the growing vegan market.

One farmer emphasised the role of farming in mitigating environmental and social crises through innovative sustainable practices and opportunities to provide experiences that educate and enhance well-being. He wanted farmers, schools and policymakers to embrace and support this vision.



  • The funding and design of ELMS is potentially key to maintaining both viability of farms in the region and integration of environment and food production. The research will explore ELMS’ capacity to support farms in the South Downs to produce food alongside public goods.
  • If farmers are pragmatic and adaptable there are opportunities and risks for sustainability. Financial and other support could promote a resilient, sustainable farming sector but insufficient funding, excessive bureaucracy or delays could do the reverse. The challenge is to ensure that farmers adapt to changes in ways that promote ecological sustainability rather than being resilient by intensifying their food production. The study will help understand what farmers feel is needed to enable sustainable adaptations in farming practice.
  • Changes in the delivery of advice, monitoring and enforcement are likely to be key to helping farmers adapt to more sustainable practices and make the most of public funding under ELMS. A shift in the balance towards useful advice and away from inspections could significantly improve farmers’ experience of regulation and motivation to engage. The study will explore the role of advice, what makes valuable advisors and how they can enable farmers to make innovative and beneficial use of a more flexible and reward-based scheme.

    The experience of these farmers validates DEFRA’s aim to enhance flexibility and reward outcomes through ELMS. The research will help evaluate how well farmers feel the developing schemes meet these goals.

  • A role for clusters in the administration of ELMS appears challenging. The study will capture members’ experience of participation and suggestions for working at landscape scale.
  • Policymakers could increase efforts around effective participation in the design of ELMS. This study aims to monitor farmers’ perceptions of this and provide another path for feedback.



Discussion is underway with key policymakers and stakeholders to ensure the study is as useful as possible. Additional recruitment of participants in the project is also taking place.

Please contact: for further information or to get involved.