The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated vulnerabilities and inequalities worldwide. An estimated 246 million children are missing out on the school meals they rely on and 49 million people are expected to fall into poverty globally during the course of this year. While the crisis has exposed the fragility of state support systems in protecting the most vulnerable, it has prompted manifestations of solidarity from below, including in food provisioning. Are these solidarity responses a transitory boon or can they drive change towards more equitable and sustainable food systems?
On the 24 November, IDS convened a panel of experts to explore how civil society organisations, rural social movements, urban solidarity networks, academics and others have come together in solidarity in Brazil to tackle some of these emerging inequalities. (You can watch the full event below.)
Similar to the mutual aid groups established in the United Kingdom and around the world, localised emergency responses in Brazil have played a significant role in connecting farmers to consumers and reaching those in need. The speakers described some of these initiatives, reflecting on what they have achieved and the challenges they face moving forward.
Localised food networks in the Covid-19 response
Claudia Schmitt, Associated Professor of the Social Sciences Graduate Program in Development, Agriculture and Society at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (CPDA / UFRRJ) shared evidence on a range of networks mobilised to address food insecurity while paying attention to sustainability and inclusion, from production to consumption. Movimenta Caxias, for example, is a collective of youth movements working on education, racial and gender justice that networked with farmers to improve food supply during the pandemic, although they had not previously worked on food systems. Solidarity schemes such as Rede Ecologica as well as the Popular Systems of Food Supply coordinated by the Small Farmers’ Movement (MPA) in Rio de Janeiro brought together producers, middle class consumers, and people experiencing food insecurity to guarantee that small farmers could sell their products and low-income consumers had access to nutritious food, while wealthier consumers helped with donations. The right to healthy and sustainable food (not just any food) is an emerging concern, spurred on by such emergency responses. Highlighting gradual changes in perceptions of food and rising consumer consciousness, Dr Schmitt suggested that these localised experiences constitute efforts to establish peoples-centred food systems, building on years of social mobilisation from below.
Les Levidow, Senior Research Fellow at The Open University, shared insights from the action-research initiative AgroEcos. In the Baixada Santista region team members contributed to a series of informal web-based conversations (rodas de conversa) providing a space for dialogue, mutual support and learning for participants of solidarity economy initiatives. Through short food supply chains (circuitos curtos), these initiatives have developed ‘an economy of proximity’ that integrates various local agendas (including agroecology, agrarian justice, and the right to food). These initiatives include, for example, the Livres network, ‘conscientious consumers’ promoting products free from agrochemicals and middlemen, distributing food baskets via an ecobikers cooperative. It includes women’s groups such as the União de Mulheres Produtoras da Economia Solidária de Peruíbe (UMPES), sharing their experience adapting farmers markets, or the Associação dos Produtores Rurais da Microbacia do Rio Branco (AMIBRA), which promotes fruits and vegetables from family farmers (including indigenous groups) and distributes them to vulnerable individuals as well for school meals. Through online learning spaces, participants discussed their experiences with collective sales, cooperative organisation, women’s leadership roles, democratic self-management, municipal support, replication of solidarity initiatives and better strategies. They could thereby strengthen their practices and inspire other places and groups. In the run-up to the November municipal elections, solidarity networks promoted a charter of policy support measures for a solidarity economy.
Andre Degenszajn, is Executive Director of Instituto Ibirapitanga, a Brazilian Foundation established in 2018. He outlined initiatives funded by the Institute to monitor responses to the pandemic, focusing specifically on: access to food by low-income families; how small family farmers and agroecological producers have adapted to the pandemic; and the functioning of the government’s school meals programme. For example, Redes da Maré, an NGO working with favelas located in Maré, Rio de Janeiro, has ensured low-income families have had continuous access to food through the pandemic by supplying food bought from local businesses. And agroecology networks Rede Ecovida and Povos da Mata have channelled food produced according to agroecological practices to low–income families in one of the largest favelas in Sao Paulo, Paraisópolis. Dr Degenszajn described the emergence, through cooperation at scale, of food chains that offer alternatives to ubiquitous ultra-processed foods and how the pandemic has helped strengthen these alternative chains. In the context of the pandemic. Ação Comida de Verdade, a network of organisations working with food and nutritional security, is mapping out ongoing and emerging agroecological initiatives around the country that contribute to building a just and sustainable food system in Brazil.
Challenges to sustaining ethical and inclusive food transactions
These local networks contest the current ‘normal’ of unsustainable farming practices, inequitable food chains and unhealthy diets. Instead they promote relationships of mutual aid, reciprocity and cooperation to bypass dominant competitive markets. By bringing producers closer to consumers they encourage relations of trust and support, and emphasise food quality (e.g. freshness and pesticide free), social justice in production and remuneration, consumer responsibility and the need for healthy eating.
During the pandemic, these connections extended beyond affluent consumers, in a process seen as the democratisation of access to healthy food. Yet, success in replacing ultra-processed, unsustainable foods in low-income neighbourhoods depends not only on availability of fresh produce in these locations, enabled by voluntary intermediaries, but also on better consumer habits, shaped by price as well as convenience. Driven by a strong solidarity ethos and supported by charitable foundations and communities, social movements have been the key mediator of these ethical and inclusive food relationships. But how can these relationships be sustained over time, and when the emergency and solidarity sentiment dissipates? And, given the voluntary work necessary for these networks, how can long-term self-exploitation be avoided and people’s contributions remunerated fairly?
Research and policy agenda moving forwards
Collaborative action-research with civil society actors and foundations, to continue knowledge-exchange with and among these food networks remains vital. Brazil has seen rapid and effective mobilisation of support systems, and innovations in achieving the right to healthy food, whilst protecting the safety and livelihoods of producers and ecological sustainability of food production. Ensuring financial sustainability for such initiatives will be a challenge in the context of economies wracked by the pandemic. It is therefore urgent for action-research to:
- understand the ability of these networks to continue operating and reaching out to low-income families, so that healthy food through short food chains do not remain a privilege for the more affluent consumers;
- highlight the multiple functions performed by these networks (and the societal value they generate), besides facilitating solidaristic relationships – for example. the environmental function of rewarding sustainable food production, or the public health function of encouraging healthy eating); and
- inform public policies that support local food networks that deliver on these multiple functions and harness the full value of a localised solidarity economy.
The event ‘Building ahead from Brazil’s pandemic: localising agri-food systems as a solidarity economy’ was organised by IDS’ Brazil International Development Research and Mutual Learning Hub.