How Brazil’s local responses to Covid can help us re-imagine food systems

Published on 8 July 2020

Image of Lidia Cabral

Lidia Cabral

Research Fellow

Claudia Schmitt

Localised solidarity and innovation in food provisioning have emerged across Brazil in response to the Covid-19 crisis (see our recent blog for more on this). But what factors enabled these rapid responses from below and how they can help in re-imagining food systems?

‘Knowledge and Gastronomy Fair at the XI Brazilian Agroecology Conference 2019’, © Saulo Coelho, Articulação Nacional de Agroecologia.

Factors enabling rapid responses from below

Local initiatives of solidarity and innovation in food trade and provisioning, including short food chains, fresh food fairs and donations, are an illustration of the strength and resilience of Brazil’s social fabric and a deeply engrained sense of collective responsibility towards protecting basic rights. How did these come about?

Constitutional rights

The 1988 Constitution stands as a landmark in Brazil’s political re-democratization, in the aftermath of the military dictatorship. This legal framework endorsed the participation of citizens in the formulation and implementation of public policies, expanding individual guarantees and civil and social rights. In 2010, the right to food was incorporated as a social right.

Societal mobilisation

Despite the recent weakening of democratic institutions, illustrated by the extinction of spaces for social participation, Brazil harbours a heterogeneous web of societal players, emboldened and guarded by the Constitution. These continue to work, at different scales, to protect rights (to land, food and social protection) and give voice and empower those who are disadvantaged in the food system or whose livelihoods and identity are undermined by the violation of territorial rights, homogenised ways of food production and voracious and unequal markets.

Institutionalised state-society interface

Societal activism to protect and exercise rights has been supported by Brazil’s political system over a sustained period. Back in the 1990s, the campaign Citizen Action against Hunger, Misery and for Life, mobilised hundreds of grassroots groups and civil society organisations and led to the creation of the National Council for Food Security and Nutrition (CONSEA), bringing together these groups and organisations and the federal government. Although extinct a couple of years later, CONSEA was reinstated by the coalition government led by the Workers’ Party (PT) in 2003 when food as a social development became once again a policy priority as articulated in the Zero Hunger Programme. This participatory policy space expanded the debate beyond concerns with food availability. It considered the conditions of production and livelihoods of disadvantaged social groups and challenged the dominant model of intensive monocropping as socially and ecologically untenable.

Collective responsibility

The legal recognition of rights and the degree of maturity in the state-society interface has helped nurturing, in some sectors of society at least, a sense of the public good and collective responsibility for fairness and justice in the food system. This collective responsibility includes shielding the state from reactionary co-optation and resisting the dismantling or hard-fought-for policies – back in April a petition signed by 877 social movements, networks and organisations demanding 1 billion reais (US$190 million) to the underfunded PAA successfully resulted in funding of half that amount.

Solidarity as struggle, not charity

Collective responsibility manifests itself in the multiple food solidarity initiatives prompted by Covid-19. But, as Luiz Zarref from the Landless Peoples’ Movement/Via Campesina recently put it, solidarity is a value in dispute: while the media puts the light on charitable initiatives by the elite, social movements are powered by humanist values of reciprocity and cohesion that emerged historically out of peoples’ struggles.

Re-imagining food systems?

Optimists see the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to establish a better normal that is equitable and ecologically sustainable and that tackles economic, social, racial, gender and other asymmetries that permeate food systems. This requires seeing these systems in a different way and shedding light onto local food producing and consumption practices and cultures that are, as Philip McMichael described, ‘invisibilized by a hegemonic ‘global food system’ discourse’. This may be read as utopian given the relentlessness of the corporate regime we all, directly or indirectly, sustain. Yet, inspired by the localised responses to Covid-19 seen in Brazil it is worth reflecting on scope for:

  1. Strengthening horizontality of food transactions, by moving away from long, vertical, impersonal and presumably orderly food chains, with individualised and segregating roles for farmers, traders, consumers. The short food chains activated during this pandemic have reduced levels of intermediation between farm and plate, with implications for both price and quality of food. The approximation between producers and consumers can also help building a sense of responsibility for options related to food purchase and push for more ethical consumption.
  2. Building multifunctionality into food networks. The localised food networks invigorated by Covid-19 illustrate that short circuits enable additional transactions. For example, personal relationships established between women in the solidarity networks of Mongaguá municipality, in Baixada Santista resulted in mutual support activities, such as exchange of products in temporary short supply due to the lockdown. Also, traded food is sometimes complemented with intangible exchanges, such as that concerning knowledge about food (seasonality, nutritional qualities, medicinal properties, recipes), which extend the overall value of what is being traded. And knowledge about how food is grown, with all its joys and troubles, helps locating food in places, their natural territory, their social and cultural environment, and moving away from flavourless foods from nowhere. This is important for traceability and trust.
  3. Valuing food as a public good. This requires interrogating framings centred on individual utility (for producers or consumers) and reductionist metrics of valuation (crop yields, market price, profit, caloric and nutritional intake) while recognising the multidimensional value embedded in food. This broader valuation should capture not just profit made by the farmer who produces the food (and other involved in the chain, from input suppliers, traders and labourers) or nutritional value for those who eat it. It should also capture the value of maintaining healthy ecosystems (provided farming practices are sustainable), of safeguarding workers’ rights to health and decent work across the food chain, of nurturing social safety nets, of preserving and harnessing knowledges about food. From a consumption point of view, if access to good quality food is to be ‘a human right, rather than a consequence of purchasing power’ then there is scope, for example, for publicly subsidising access to organic food products to lower income groups (making premium organics not just the privilege of the affluent few), as the Covid-19 response by solidarity networks has shown to be possible if the right connections are made.

Perhaps the Covid-19 crisis will mark the beginning of a shift that breaks away from vertical and impersonal globalised food chains and puts the emphasis on local networks and places. Brazil’s localised food responses to Covid-19 offer hope that this is possible and suggest a key role for local government (municipalities particularly), civil society organisations, social movement sand engaged consumers. But turning these emergency initiatives into more permanent food infrastructures that retain the humanist solidarity ethos requires much thinking on governance arrangements and forms of support that can be sustained. And it will require a critical mindset and ‘reflexive localism’ to keep power unbalances and asymmetries in check within these localised food networks. Lesson learning on the current experience should start now.


Lídia Cabral is a Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies. Claudia Schmitt is Assistant Professor at the Social Sciences Postgraduate Programme in Development, Agriculture and Society, at the Rural Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and member of the Observatory of Public Policies for Agriculture.


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