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People must regain control over food supply chain after coronavirus, says new U.N. envoy

ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - With panic buyers stripping supermarket shelves and long queues at food banks, the new coronavirus crisis has laid bare the challenges in ending global hunger, said the new United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

The world produces enough food to feed everyone but the narrow focus on boosting production obscures the real reasons why millions do not have enough to eat, said Michael Fakhri, who took up his U.N. post at the start of May.

“The virus is new, but the problems it’s creating are not new. It’s exacerbating and accelerating existing inequalities,” Fakhri, also a law professor at the University of Oregon, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“The problem for decades now has been and remains distribution and sharing ... communities or individuals need to have control and power over how the food system is created and that system needs to be accountable to the most vulnerable.”

Fakhri, who grew up in Lebanon where customers had close-knit ties with food sellers, said local connections and trust were key to building a fairer, more inclusive and equal food system after the pandemic.

The coronavirus has upended global supply chains. Food banks have run short, travel restrictions have prevented workers planting and harvesting crops and farmers have dumped milk and culled livestock because they could not get them to market.

KEY WORKERS

The crisis has also exposed the shortcomings in how food is currently produced as it has ripped through meat processing plants in some of the world’s richest countries in North America and Europe, Fakhri said.

Meat-packing plants have proved devastatingly effective vectors of disease, leading to thousands of infections and dozens of deaths among U.S. workers who slaughter hogs and process meat for shipment all over the world.

In these places, working and living conditions for workers, many of whom are migrants, have always been “awful”, with inadequate health and safety conditions, small changing rooms and tightly-packed dorms, Fakhri said.

“Our supply chains and food system are only as strong and healthy as the workers are,” he said, adding that the concentration of power among a few big firms reduces the incentive to improve working conditions.

Globally, four corporations - Brazil’s JBS, Tyson and Cargill in the United States and Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods - dominate the meat-producing sector, according to the U.S.-based advocacy group Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

This market consolidation has come under scrutiny with the coronavirus, with U.S. Senator Josh Hawley calling for an investigation into why four firms process 85% of the country’s beef, which he said undermined the stability of meat supplies.

By opening people’s eyes to the importance of food workers, from farms to factories, Fakhri hopes that the coronavirus pandemic will build momentum to give people more control over what they eat and how it is produced.

“The recovery isn’t to get back to normal but to build something even better and stronger and more resilient,” he said.

“Food historically is the most powerful way people control other people. If I control the food supply, I can control everything.”

Reporting By Thin Lei Win @thinink, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org

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